Do you dread washing your kid’s hair because they hate it so much and throw a total fit at any attempt to do so? Understand why your child hates hair washing and learn these simple strategies to help!
It was the night before school picture day and I was agonizing over bath time.
My 3-year-old’s hair was a matted mess, and any attempt I made to wash it over the last several months was met with hysterics. My frustration caused my patience to grow short, and my daughter was matching my emotional level with tantrums and tears.
What was I doing wrong, and why was this so hard?
The stress of how to get my toddler to wash her hair was driving me crazy.
I remember the shame I felt around my daughter not washing her hair properly.
Other little girls had their hair done up in pigtails and bows and I couldn’t even get my kid’s hair clean, let alone brushed and styled.
Bedtime routine was hard enough without the constant bath time battle, and I felt so defeated and helpless over this simple routine task.
What made hair washing so upsetting? Why are some kids so bothered by getting their hair washed, and what can you do about it?
Why Some Children Hate Getting Their Hair Washed
While it’s possible that your child developed a negative reaction to hair washing from a single accidental soap-in-the-eye event, most kids hate hair washing because there’s something a little deeper going on: a sensory sensitivity.
If that’s a new term for you, don’t worry, all people have sensory preferences and will seek our and avoid certain sensations to keep themselves regulated and grounded.
The same is true for kids, although most children don’t have the skills yet to communicate or even cope with their needs, particularly when they experience a sensitivity.
Most parents are surprised to discover that their child has such intense sensitivities. Rest assured, your child is NOT being bad, defiant, or acting out for attention. This is one of many hidden sensory red flags.
But, their sensory system is likely overprocessing sensations they experience during hair washing.
While this can happen to any child it’s very common for kids with an Autism (ASD) or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) diagnosis. Besides hair washing kids with sensory sensitivities can also struggle with teeth brushing, nail cutting, and hair brushing.
What’s important is to identify which sensations, and there are many during the hair washing experience, your child is sensitive to:
1. Your Child is sensitive to being tipped backwards
This is one of the most overlooked causes of kids disliking hair washing because it’s so darn easy to miss.
You may not even notice this is a problem, but it happens more often than you’d think.
A child who is sensitive to being tipped backwards feels uncertain of where they are headed, and it can make them feel insecure, unsteady, and even quite scared.
Of course, this isn’t a typical response, but it does happen with kids that have a vestibular sensitivity. Our vestibular sense controls our sense of balance and motion.
If your child gets anxious or upset when you tip their head back to rinse out their shampoo, or they claw at your hands when you tip them backwards, it’s a good indicator that a vestibular sensitivity is at least part of the reason why they hate hair washing.
The good news is there are ways to improve your child’s vestibular processing so they can tolerate being tipped backwards, as well as other simple strategies you can use to avoid this position until they are comfortable.
2. Your child is sensitive to the feeling of the shampoo or getting their head scrubbed
This is probably the most common reason that kids hate hair washing.
Some are sensitive to tactile or touch sensations in general, while others prefer specific types of touches. This means that some kids need to be touched with firm pressure because light gentle touches aggravate them.
Other times, the firm, hard scrubbing can be very uncomfortable.
Either way, it’s a tactile sensitivity that is very real, and can actually be described by some children as painful! Fortunately these sensitivities can be desensitized, and tip #1 below is a helpful solution to this particular shampooing challenge.
3. Your child is sensitive to water being dumped on their face and body
This falls into the tactile sensitivity category, too. To some kids, dripping water down their face and neck is just too stimulating to their tactile sensory systems, or they can feel like they can’t breathe. Many kids grow out of this naturally with some patience and by using some of the strategies below.
4. Your child is sensitive to the smell of the shampoo
This is not nearly as common and can often be easy to figure out, but not always. Toddlers especially may not easily vocalize their disdain for a particular scent. It’s worth trying an odorless shampoo, or deliberately selecting calming scents that your child may like.
You can even smell shampoo together in the store before you buy or work on smell sensory activities!
Keep in mind, your child could be having a meltdown when it’s time to wash hair due to one or all more of the reasons above. It may take some detective work to determine what your child’s hang-ups are, but once you identify the problems, you can work toward solving them.
Now, let’s talk about some solutions to overcome the fear of hair washing.
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14 Ways to Help Kids that Hate Getting Their Hair Washed
Based on what you think the underlying cause of hair washing hatred is, pick a few (or more!) of the tricks below to try with your child.
I’d suggest repeating several times before giving up on any of the tips, as these kiddos are used to hair washing being uncomfortable and they may need some time to adjust!
Put the worries aside, you’ve got this…
1. Talk about it
Sound simple? It is, but something we often don’t think to try. When it’s time to wash hair (or maybe beforehand, if your child’s anxiety is through the roof mid-bath), ask them what they think would help them deal with getting their hair washed.
My children have surprised me so many times with excellent solutions for their sensory needs that I, as an occupational therapist, would have never thought about!
2. Hold up a mirror
If your child isn’t old enough to do this on their own, you may need a helper. It can be immensely helpful for kids to actually see what’s going on, since they can only feel it. Some kids can get caught up in making funny shampoo hairdos.
A breakthrough for my toddler and her hair washing troubles came through recording a video of her completing each step and having her watch it back.
Kids love seeing themselves on a phone, and this was a simple step that can make your child feel more comfortable.
3. Hold their shoulder
I know this sounds a little odd, but this is a great sensory trick.
Using one of your hands to apply firm and steady pressure as you actually wash their hair or tip them backwards with your other hand gives them a little boost in proprioceptive input.
This can help calm them and actually decrease their tactile sensitivity for the moment.
Leaning against the side or back of the tub can help in the same way!
Another option is to provide deep pressure to the top of the head before the bath to add another layer of calming input to their body.
4. Read a social story
Social stories can be extremely powerful for kids, as they tell a story in picture book format of facing the problem of not liking hair washing and work through step by step.
Even a fictional story can empower kids to push through their sensitivity. Check out this social story on hair washing if you’d like to try this simple tip with your child.
Videos of other children washing their hair are also a powerful tool to help a child understand the process and can make it seem much less scary.
5. Dumping vs. tipping back
As you read in the section above, tipping back or dumping could be challenging for sensory sensitivities. You’ll want to experiment (and ask your child) which would be better.
It could also change from day to day.
Consider using a towel to cover the child’s face completely that you allow to get wet while pouring the water on their hair. This prevents the need for them to tip back at all if that position causes them stress.
6. A bath visor
Have you seen these visors kids can put on when it’s time to rinse their hair? It keeps the water out of their face and you don’t have to tip them back either!
I have even used snorkeling goggles in a pinch. Humor and silliness can go a long way to diffuse a stressful situation.
7. Wash sparingly
We are used to washing kids’ hair quite often, but are your expectations for this necessary?
Step back and figure out the longest your child can go before washing their hair again. Maybe every 3-4 days, even 1 time a week could be appropriate.
Can you use dry shampoo or spray detangler on the other days?
8. Break it down into small steps
As hard as it feels to repeatedly confront this battle, taking small, consistent steps to develop a routine and break down the task can lessen the expectation to win the war every time.
Focus on baby steps regularly, even every day. Will my child allow the back of their hair to get wet, even if shampoo isn’t going to happen? Consider that a win.
Can you try spray conditioner and detangle with a brush and avoid the water all together?
Can you practice leaning back and using a towel to cover their eyes?
All of these small pieces can help break down the stress of the entire process.
9. Practice- A lot!
This may seem like a no-brainer, and even contradictory to the suggestion mentioned above to wash sparingly.
But toddlers, especially, are notoriously fickle creatures, and being consistent to present opportunities to succeed and catch them on a compliant or flexible day can make all the difference for building tolerance over time.
Try to make hair washing less of an ordeal, and you may find that your child is suddenly more adaptable to it as part of the routine.
Like many things in life, consistency is key.
10. Use no tear soap
For kids that are worried about getting soap in their eyes, no-tear shampoo formulas can be a life saver.
Gather dolls and/or animals either during or outside of bath time to pretend washing others’ hair. This can help create a positive association for the negative experience it’s been!
12. Give them something to look at!
As we have mentioned before, tipping the head back can be the underlying problem for children, and following this direction can actually be confusing and scary for them.
Try placing a sticker or picture on the shower wall or ceiling to give a concrete visual cue for your child to focus their attention while you wet their hair.
Providing a separate sensory stimulus, in this case, visual input, can distract them and help de-escalate their stress response.
This strategy is called “grounding” and can be very effective in managing anxiety.
Telling a child “look up at the smiley face” is a lot more tangible of a direction than “lean your head back.”
13. Give it time
My daughter’s picture day came and went, without getting her hair washed.
But guess what? It was okay.
Give yourself and your child some grace and time to work through learning to tolerate washing their hair. While it may seem like a simple routine task to us, the whole process can be very upsetting to some kids.
As much as we wish we could solve the problem overnight, this is rarely the case.
The small, patient attempts to help your child adjust really can add up to making bath time stress-free
14. Do calming sensory activities before bath time
This is an advanced strategy, but it can make all the difference, especially if you’ve tried some of the other tips already.
The idea is that you give them the opportunity to do a sensory activity that helps calm them down, or balance their sensory system.
Which activity works will be different from child to child, but could be anything from jumping on the bed or a small trampoline, swinging, running up/down the steps, having some quiet time, etc.
This is the essence of a sensory diet. If that’s a new term to you, check out What is a Sensory Diet to learn more.
And, if you want to learn how to pick activities that will work for you child, check out the free online sensory workshop.
That’s 14 different tips and strategies, many of which you can start using today to help your child begin to accept, tolerate, and maybe even enjoy getting their hair washed!
If all this sensory stuff is new to you and you’re wondering if there are more sensory red flags you could be missing in your child’s life, click here to grab the free printable: 21 Sensory Red Flags You Might Be Missing.
More About Sensory for Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.