Pediatric occupational therapists facilitate a child’s functional independence throughout day-to-day life skills. Included in these activities of daily living is grooming and hygiene. For many, these routines, like haircuts and nail trimming, can be a “sensory struggle.” Sensory processing difficulties can result in push back, meltdowns or flat out refusal, angry outbursts, or increased display of emotions like anxiousness, fear, or sadness for your child when trying to encourage such activities.
These routine necessities may have been difficult pre-COVID, but challenges may be exacerbated even more now with COVID-related changes. Many parents have taken on additional roles, one being such as the hairdresser. Families are spending more time at home and previously visited salons may have closed or limited their hours. Some parents do not want to take the trip if they do not need to, as it may not be worth the risk. As a result, the new norm for many parents is to just give their own kids haircuts at home.
Three common scenarios:
- Parents who avoid dealing with grooming/hygiene and just let their kids be, may it be with long unruly hair.
- Parents who take their kids to the salon but give reports of it being a struggle, exhausting and maybe embarrassing.
- Parents who take on the challenge to cut their kids hair at home, not expecting an amazing look, more just for function, and yet still find it to be a struggle.
But why are grooming routines such a challenge to our sensory system?
Well, we know that sensory modulation is the ability to respond appropriately to sensory information. We also know that sensory discrimination refers to how we process sensory stimuli and perceive the meaning attributed to it. There is a response, but is it accurate and understood by our nervous system? Are our children able to tolerate routine hair/nail care, or are they processing sensory input inefficient and perceiving touch input, or other forms of sensory input, as threatening, scary, or even painful.
Some kids may be under-responsive and sensory seekers. Others may be over-responsive and more sensitive or avoidant. Maybe your child is somewhere in between and presenting with a mix of reactions that is hard to define, predict and problem solve for.
They may be more bothered by any or all the following:
- Bright fluorescent lighting
- Strong smells of soaps
- Loud noises from blow dryers and buzzers
- Irritating light touch of the loose hairs on our skin, water sprayed, water on our head
- Pressure from the cape high on neck or comb on our scalp
- Cold metal scissors/buzzer against our sensitive neck and ears
- Sitting still since they are always “on the go.”
- Sitting up because of weaker core muscles and postural control difficulty.
- Tilting their head backwards, out of neutral, to have their head rinsed.
Everyone’s sensory system and comfort levels are different. Whatever the challenge area(s) may be, there are things we as caregivers can do to better the experience!
Learn more about sensory processing difficulties HERE.
What can we do about it?
- Re-frame: Re-frame the way haircuts or nail care is presented. You can adjust the language to use the word “trim” rather than cut. It may help to observe a grown up or sibling go first to serve as a positive role model. Creating a social story can be helpful, so that kids can learn explicitly about the experiences to come. The more we educate our children and increase their body awareness, such as to different parts of their fingers, toes, or feet, the more they will be comfortable and understanding. Make it fun! Use play to practice, like with trimming a stuffed animal’s hair or by trimming and painting a doll’s nails.
- Prep the body: Prep the body to set the kiddo up for success. Deep pressure is calming, so bear hugs, tight squeezes and wearing a hat may help as a “warm up.” Fun ways to prepare can be to make it like a spa. Get out bowls with warm bubbly water. Allow the child to take some control. Let them brush their own hair. Use play, like by putting silly stickers on each fingertip for de-sensitization. Use OT to prep your child. Maybe right after the treatment session is a good time to get the grooming routines done.
- Adjust expectations: Adjust expectations and recognize that this is an individualized process. With time and consistency, it will get easier. This may mean being okay with only trimming 1-2 nails at a time to start off, or with cutting 3 locks of curls each week. Clarify expectations and make it a weekly routine. You can have “Tuesday trim days” and work at it a little bit at a time. Consider sharing some of the control with your child. It may help them to feel more comfortable and autonomous if they get to pick which nail will be trimmed next. Ultimately, they’re still getting their nails trimmed but, in the meantime, they feel like they get to make a choice. Adjust where these routines take place. It might work to get it done while they are in the bathtub, buckled in their car seat or highchair, busy on the I-pad or even when they are sleeping. There is no judgement and no right or wrong way to go about this!
Remember, progress is progress, no matter how small or big!
Want to learn more about specific strategies and resources you can use during grooming activities? CLICK HERE: Sensory strategies to help with grooming activities
Hi, I am an occupational therapist at South Shore Therapies. I love working with children through a family-centered care approach. It is a passion of mine to help families problem solve life’s daily challenges, big and small. Our mission with SST’s social media platform is to empower, educate and inspire families to take on life’s challenges while promoting an optimistic outlook and a brighter future.