Hair care can be torture for some kids with sensory issues. While all of us have sensory preferences, for kids with Sensory Processing Disorder or autism, having their hair washed, combed, or cut can go beyond just being unpleasant. I’ve put together a list of tips to help kids who struggle with sensory issues when it comes to their hair.
Lately, a lot of readers have been contacting me for advise about their child’s hair. I understand this concern well as one of our sons used to cower in the corner when he saw me reach for the hair brush. He would scream and beg me not to comb his hair.
Mornings became difficult for both of us. His beautiful curls became knotted if I gave in to his pleas not to comb it which only made it worse. And bath times were another battle ground as he hated the feeling of the water on his face when rinsing the shampoo off.
Obviously with his scalp being as sensitive as it was, there was absolutely no way he would allow a hairdresser near his head.
We got to the point where we just shaved his hair super short so that it didn’t have to be such a daily battle.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about sensory and together, he and I have come a LONG way! He is a teenager now and actually enjoys getting his hair cut at the barber. He does prefer to keep it short still, but is happy to have it washed and cut.
A lot of sensory kiddos are super sensitive about having their hair washed, cut, combed or even touched. There are many reasons for this.
Sensory Reasons for Hair Struggles:
Vestibular – Some kids are sensitive to having their head tilted backwards or forward for rinsing when having their hair washed. Your vestibular system controls your body’s sense of balance and motion. Kids with vestibular issues can feel unsteady, uncomfortable, or even afraid when tipping their head.
Olfactory (Scent) – Your child may be sensitive to the smell of the hair products you are using on them.
Tactile – Many children with sensory issues have very sensitive scalps or are sensitive to touch in general from hands, brushes or combs, and even water. Water on their face, in their eyes, or having shampoo get in their eyes can be difficult for all kids, let alone ones with higher sensitivities. Tactile is the most common reason for problems with hair care in kids with sensory sensitivities.
Auditory – Some kids struggle with the sound of the clippers at the hairdresser or the sound of the water in a shower.
Tips for managing hair care and sensory needs:
- Determine the root cause. Talk to your child and also make your own observations and see if you can determine what the biggest sensory issues are. That way, you’ll be tackling things accurately.
- Acknowledge to them and to you that this is not a child being difficult. This is a real thing that is causing them real pain or discomfort. Doing this will give you more patience and empathy.
- Wash their hair less often. Kids do not need their hair washed daily (unless your physician has given you a medical reason why your child does). Every third day should be sufficient unless they happen to play in the mud on the in between days. You can also use a dry shampoo for the days in between if you’re concerned about the cleanliness of their hair.
- If shampoo is your main battle, skip the shampoo. Wash with water and a conditioner and use dry shampoo.
- Give your child more control in the process. Allow them to choose their hair products. Let them smell shampoos and conditioners at the store and decide what they like or buy unscented. Let them comb and style their own hair.
- Choose a low maintenance hair style for them. This was easier for me to do with my son than it was when one of my daughters had a hard time with having her hair combed and wanted it cut short, but I knew that “pretty hair” wasn’t worth the tears it would take every day to get there.
- Don’t expect your child to hold still while you comb or style their hair. Give them a fidget to play with or a weighted lap pad. Let them play Lego or watch TV or both. It won’t be easy for you to comb hair on a moving target, but it will be less stressful if they are less upset.
- Make changes. (see list below)
- Try a different comb such as a Tangle Teaser or Wet Brush.
- Try a bath rather than a shower or a shower rather than a bath.
- Wash their hair in the sink rather than in the bath.
- Try dumping water on their head using a Rinse Cup rather than having them tip their head back.
- Have your child use a Bath Visor to avoid getting as much water on their face. You can also use this during haircuts to avoid pieces of hair getting on their face.
- Allow your child to wear swim goggles or a snorkel mask in the bath or shower.
- Be sure you are using an excellent detangler so that knots are not making the hair combing situation even worse.
- Use a visual timer so that your child knows how long they have to “endure” having their hair brushed.
A note about haircuts:
Our hairstylist comes to our house and used to cut our kids’ hair where they are comfortable while they play with toys or read or watch TV to distract them. If this isn’t possible for you, pass these tips along to your salon to help them be more sensory friendly.
You also may want to ask them about the calming clipper kit. This sensory friendly barber kit is made just for kids with sensory needs. You can also use it yourself at home where your child is most comfortable.
Biggest tip about hair and sensory needs:
As odd as this sounds, don’t work at all on trying to increase your child’s ability to handle having her head or hair touched. Leave the hair alone as much as possible and instead, focus on increasing other sensory activities: sensory play, heavy work, sensory input.
If you are working with an OT, ask them about dry brushing. This type of brushing is for the skin, not the hair, but is best under the care of an OT.
By increasing your child’s range of sensory experiences (sensory diet), it will eventually begin to be easier for them to have their head and hair touched.
Get a copy of Sensory Processing Overload Signs to print off and keep as a reminder here.