“Ouch! You are hurting me!! Stop!!”
Does it seem like your child has tender nerve endings on each strand of hair when you comb or cut it? Do they act like you always cut their skin when you are merely trimming their nails? Or like you are drawing blood when you are only getting the day’s dirt out from under their toenails? You are not the only one parenting a sensitive soul!
There is something about haircuts and grooming which can trigger anxiety and resistance in some children — followed by frustration and exasperation in their parents. It’s especially hard to understand when, as an adult, you may love your time at the hairdresser or think manicures are a total treat! Pampering. Who doesn’t like that? Your child, that’s who.
So, what is going on? Why doesn’t it work to say, “You are fine. This does not hurt! I am being as gentle as I can be. We have done this a million times!” Although totally understandable, this response just heightens the frustration on both sides. On the one hand, you know your child needs compassion and understanding. On the other, the whole process can exhaust both of you. Let’s start by looking at these situations from the child’s perspective.
Give your child words to identify their feelings, and let them know you want to help.
A major challenge for many children is that for most grooming activities they need to sit still. As if that isn’t bad enough, if they don’t sit still, they actually could get an injury. Have you ever said, “If you don’t sit still I might hurt you?” Now your child is thinking: I must sit still. I might get hurt. Tense Mama. Cue the dramatics. This potentially nice little quiet time is now filled with a screaming, squirming child, and it's taking 10 times as long to finish. Not a good beginning.
Haircuts, in particular, bring a host of challenges for your child. A salon in itself carries a plethora of new noises and smells. Sensitive ears and noses can be easily overwhelmed. The strong distinctive smells may not only be offensive to your child’s nose, but could also trigger a headache or nausea. And don't forget the noises, from loud hair dryers to the buzzing of razors to the snipping of scissors. Maybe this is nothing to you, but it could mean shear agony — no pun intended — for your child.
One tip: Name the sensitivity for your child. Give them words to identify their feelings, and let them know you notice and acknowledge the sensitivity. And not only do you notice, but you want to help them find ways to deal with their sensitivities.
If your child is older, you may ask them for ideas and then offer a solution or two to mitigate any pain or discomfort. For example, “I know the sound of the clippers bothers you, so would you like to use headphones or earplugs to help muffle the sound?” Or perhaps, “I can see that the cape is not comfortable for you, so which shirt do you want to wear instead?”
This is a great opportunity to guide your child toward recognizing their sensitivities, decreasing frustration and generally empowering them. And who knows? Maybe your child may even come to enjoy grooming!
Here are some other ideas to help you on your way:
Try haircuts at home.
I took a haircutting class and was able to cut my daughters’ hair for years. I have a friend who did this with her boys. When they are young they don’t know the difference between a good and bad cut, so it gives you time to practice!
Visit the salon.
Try finding a quiet salon, and then visit the salon first just to get used to the sound and smells before you have the “real” appointment (psst — if you need suggestions, check out this list of awesome local salons for kids). Perhaps you can make their appointment when there are fewer people there. You could ask the stylist to just comb their hair for the first visit or give a partial trim.
Take your child to the store with you and let them pick out hair and nail grooming products. Allow them to take their favorite hairbrush or comb to the appointment. They could even pick out a soft shirt to wear instead of the unfamiliar cape with a scratchy closure. And while you are at it, pick up a soft brush to remove the little hairs as they fall on sensitive skin.
Letting them look in a mirror may reduce anxiety.
Give your child headphones to block the noise and even deliver some soothing music while they are getting groomed. This may take the edge off of their anxiety. They can wear the headphones “upside-down” or use earbuds if noise cancellation is not as important.
Start with partial nail clipping.
Start with just the thumbs, then the index fingers and so on. Press each fingertip before clipping. You may also try clipping after a bath when the nails are softer.
Use a timer.
Tell your child that when the timer goes off you will stop. It will give them the feeling that the length of time is not “forever” and it gives them a sense of control.
Offer comfort foods.
As adults, we often use comfort foods or treats to get through difficult meetings or drives, so why not pick something special just for this challenging time?
Find some calming smells.
Have them choose a nice-smelling vanilla cream to put on their hands after they get their nails trimmed.
Try breathing and relaxation techniques.
It's clear that their system is not calm, and teaching them to take deep breaths before and during the event can work wonders. Think about other activities that have helped with calming and practice those at non-stressful times.
Make a story out of it.
If you have tried all of these ideas and your child is still struggling through grooming, have someone take photos of each stage of the event (put on the cape, sit by the sink, wet hair, soap hair, rinse, comb the hair, clip the front, etc). This can be used like a little story or schedule to let them know what is going to happen next and further reassure them that this story has an end. Surprises are not the friend of sensitive little souls!
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated for 2019.