Haircuts are sometimes KNOT fun! Many people associate going to the salon or barber with a fresh start, a time to wind down, or to be pampered. It can be a relaxing experience for most individuals; however it can also be a scary and uncomfortable place for children with sensory processing difficulties.
What is sensory processing?
Sensory processing is the organization of sensory information from the body and the external world that allows a person to interact effectively with their physical and social environments.
When a person has difficulty processing sensory information it can result in maladaptive responses. These responses can occur when the sensory systems such as: vision, auditory, tactile, and orally are overwhelmed in an environment or unfamiliar setting. Some common behaviors that can occur in children as a result of a system being in overdrive is covering their ears or running from loud/unfamiliar noises, avoiding touching various textures or getting messy, or avoiding being touched to areas of the body.
So how does this make haircuts harder for kids with sensory processing difficulties?
Sensory processing difficulties in regards to touch, olfactory or auditory systems can significantly impact tolerance for haircuts. Auditory senses are heightened in these settings as salons and barber shops are filled with LOUD noises such as clippers, music, conversations, and phones ringing. They also have various smells filling the air from the shampoo, conditioners, creams, etc. which elicit responses to our olfactory sense.
Lastly, tactile defensiveness is a key component to consider with haircuts and sensory differences. Tactile defensiveness involves a tendency to over-react to ordinary touch sensations. There is tactile input being placed on the child’s head in various forms from the stylist hands, a cape being wrapped around the body or neck to shield from loose hair, and the scissors/clippers close to the child’s head. All these components can have a significant impact on a child with sensory differences or tactile defensiveness.
What are some sensory friendly haircut tips?
Helping a child prepare for sensory experiences in advance can lower stress and anxiety for many children. For example, showing pictures of children getting haircuts may make the situation less anxiety- provoking for some children, as it may help them to know what to expect.
Here are some websites with tips to help ease distress for a child if they are presenting with tactile defensive or sensory differences related to hair-cuts or self-care tasks:
There are also salons that specialize in sensory haircuts for children with sensory processing difficulties and provide accommodations.
Ayres, A. J. (2005). Sensory integration and the child. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services. (Original work published 1976)
O’Brien, J. C., & Miller-Kuhaneck, H. (2020). Case-smith’s occupational therapy for children and adolescents. Elsevier.