Performing everyday tasks can be especially challenging for children with sensory sensitivities. Going to the grocery store, running errands, getting dressed, and using the restroom are just a short list of activities that may be particularly daunting for your child.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I hear about the most challenging everyday tasks for children with sensory sensitivities and am asked to give suggestions on how to make these tasks achievable for children. One of the most common concerns I get from parents of a child with sensory sensitivities is a child’s inability to tolerate haircuts. This is often accompanied with words like: screaming, having a fit, and inability to remain seated. The good news is that there are things you can do to make this experience more tolerable for your child.
Here is a list of some suggestions I have given to families and that I recommend for others to try. Select items to use depending on your child’s level of sensitivity, age, and ability to follow directions.
6 Tips to Help Sensory Sensitivities with Haircuts
- Have your child engage in a lot of heavy work and deep pressure input the weeks leading up to his/her haircut. Heavy work includes: pushing and pulling items, jumping, performing animal walks, etc. If you aren’t familiar with heavy work, read this NSPT blog that includes some ideas for activities at home. You could also search “heavy work for sensory processing” on Google and you will find many ideas. This should be done for approximately 10-30 minutes a day, 1-2 times per day depending on your child’s age and level of sensory sensitivity. This will help “wake up” the tactile system in order to process sensation better.
- Write a social story with images of what the child should expect when getting his/her hair cut. This will be a step by step guide to getting a haircut. Go through each step such as arriving to the hair saloon, sitting in a chair, putting a cloth around the child’s neck, etc. Read this to your child often, going through each step of the process.
- Play pretend barber shop. Take turns with your child sitting in a chair, wrapping a cloth around each others neck, and pretending to cut each others hair with safety scissors. Do this saying that we are practicing for your hair cut on X day. Do this at least a few times before the child gets a haircut. When doing this, take special note of things your child may have difficulty with. For instance, if he or she has a difficult time remaining seated, experiment with some fidget toys such as a stress ball or having the child hold his/her favorite stuffed animal. Does your child respond well to use of a weighted blanket or weighted vest? If your child has a difficult time sitting still you may want to experiment with these items during play to see if it helps. Provide these same tools during the time your child gets a haircut. Time the child while he/she is seated during play and applaud them for any amount of time they are able to sit still (a visual timer is best). Build up to having the child remain seated for the approximate time the hair cut will take. Again, applaud them for any amount of time achieved!
- Make a sensory tool kit with your child that includes items that calm him/her. Bring this tool kit with you on the day of the haircut and practice using it while playing barber shop.
- Start playing with your child’s hair a few weeks before the hair cut. If your child can tolerate hair brushing, engage in play with his/her hair a few times per week. Spike it up and do another hair style that the child enjoys or comes up with. Have the child do this independently (after providing them with the tools) the first time (if possible) and see if they will let you do it the next time. This may be a slow process with you only being able to help slightly. Build up to you doing it without the child’s assistance. If the child cannot tolerate hair brushing, start with one brush with the hair brush, and move up to 2 the next day, 3 the following day, and so on.
- Go to the barber shop one time before the child gets his/her hair cut. Have the child meet the person who will be cutting their hair and ask if the child can look around the barber shop.