The Haircutting Wars


Guaranteed to cause more  fear than any horror movie! The mere presence of a comb anywhere within Brian’s visual field can elicit a major protest. The donning of a cape signals that the worst is yet to come and a pair of scissors on their final approach to commence the hair trim is unbearable. My husband and I sweat more profusely than any intense workout can ever provide during the actual process, requiring our own sensory decompression afterwards. Welcome to the Haircutting Wars, the most perplexing, sometimes heartbreaking, and often frustrating experience for Brian and ourselves. This sensory struggle has been ongoing since 2004, when Brian had his first official haircut in the barber shop at 15 months old. We weren’t too concerned back then and knew that it wasn’t unusual for little kids to dislike haircuts. We had seen other little ones going through the same turmoil simultaneously with Brian and figured that he would eventually  “outgrow” this issue. Almost 12 years later, and still not much has changed, only that Brian has become much bigger and stronger. A part of me sometimes wonders if Brian will ever be able to tolerate a haircut at all….

Both the school staff and the home therapists have been diligent in trying to desensitize Brian to the process, starting with the visual acceptance of the “tools of the trade”, pictured above, and currently having Brian touch a comb, raise it to his head, and comb a small section of hair with hand-over-hand help. Brian has 22 goals in his IEP for haircombing alone-talk about “splitting hairs”!  I never knew that a basic goal could be broken down into so many small steps. Both we and the staff continue to wrack our brains to find THE reward to use exclusively for hair-related goals only. So far, no luck. We continue to use food and music as rewards while we search and Brian certainly enjoys both. In the meantime,  Brian’s hair still needs cut, so what to do?

While it has never been perfect, it definitely was easier when Brian was smaller to get a haircut.  We would bring him to a local kids salon where the staff were great and understanding. We tried to distract Brian with a video, gold fish crackers, praise, etc., but inevitably Jim and I would have to hold him down while the stylist quickly cut the hair with scissors . I was always amazed how well  (and even!) Brian’s hair came out under these circumstances. But there came a time when Brian’s particular stylist told us that she could no longer cut his hair because he was getting too big and strong to handle. That was a sad day for us.

Then Brian’s school at that time took over and were able to cut his hair at the school salon!  What a gift! Six years of absolute bliss, why, I never even gave it a second thought! Sure, Brian was not thrilled about getting his hair cut, but the impression I received from the teachers was that he was at least tolerating the haircuts and that there was a lot of supportive staff there to help him through it. It seemed just fine, until he no longer attended that program. Brian ended up back where he was 6 years prior (or perhaps things had never really changed, but we will never know for sure). Now what to do? Desperate times call for desperate measures, so we contacted all of our reinforcements: the teacher, behaviorists, therapists, and developmental pediatrician. Each professional had their recommendations and we decided to do the following: have Brian take Xanax one hour prior to his hair appointment to see if this would reduce his high anxiety and simultaneously, trim his hair while he was asleep, especially if the salon experience was unsuccessful.

The results of both strategies were mixed , both with hopeful potential. The Xanax did calm Brian down a little bit, but not enough to get a full hair cut done. He was still very unhappy, but the stylist amazingly was able to trim one side of his head. I call that alone a gold star performance!
In the meantime, I have been going into Brian’s room a few hours after he falls asleep at night to trim the other side with manicure scissors. A hair stylist, I am NOT, only a Mom who wants to help her son and will do whatever it takes.

Brian’s specialist said that we can increase the Xanax a little more for the next salon visit to lessen the anxiety and I continue to hone my hair cutting skills, late in the evening, while little boy blue slumbers peacefully. I continue to be reminded of the courage that it takes for our special children to face not only life’s challenges, but even things as seemingly benign as a haircut. How ironic that Brian loves to shampoo and wash his own hair and would do that for hours if we let him! Ah, our often quirky, never boring special kids, who always keep us on our toes, pull on our heart strings, and motivate us to move mountains for them so that they can live their best lives. Raising a special needs child is a privilege that has given us great blessings, but it is not for the faint-hearted and is sometimes discouraging because of times like these. Life would definitely be a lot easier without haircut meltdowns! Hopefully, that will become a reality in the future, step by step, snip by snip….I’m sure Brian will let us know when he is ready! 🙂

Thanks for reading! 🙂


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