Expert Opinion

How to handle a child who hates haircuts & other sensory difficulties

Do you have a littlie who seems to have huge reactions to seemingly trivial situations? Are you trying to work out what’s causing these behaviours and emotions but just can’t put your finger on it?

When parents have these challenges with their children, we often end up considering whether sensory processing might be at play.

You see, when it comes to sensory processing differences in kids, the triggers to their reactions and behaviours are not so apparent – and can be inconsistent, so isolating a cause for your child’s distress becomes challenging.

As a psychologist, I’ve worked with countless children who have had sensory processing differences – and as such, I’ve learned a lot from the Occupational Therapists who often assess and treat such challenges in kids.

At a very basic level, we all receive and process sensory information – all day, every day. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, the feel of things as well as how our body feels in space and how it balances and moves. When someone has a difference in how they process this sensory information, they may be receiving too much or too little stimulation from that information. Often kids who struggle in this area will show sensitivity to some sensory input (such as avoiding loud sounds or haircuts) but may seek out sensory input in other areas (like bouncing and jumping frequently or visually inspecting objects for extended periods of time).

It’s pretty complicated right?! Here’s how I’ve conceptualised it and what I recommend to parents to help manage these often-tricky situations…

When a child is receiving too much stimulation from their sensory input (also called ‘hypersensitive’) – they might interpret the experience as painful, or just too overwhelming. These might be the kids who can’t eat certain foods or can’t manage certain smells. If you have a child who prefers to wear shorts year-round rather than pants or avoids having their nails or haircut, can’t wear certain fabrics or tolerate tags on clothes, or hates it when you use the hairdryer – they might be a bit sensitive to some sensory information. Parents might see avoidance behaviours and big emotional meltdowns from these kiddos because they can easily become overwhelmed when faced with non-preferred sensory input.
When a child is not receiving enough stimulation from sensory input (also called hyposensitive)– they might seek this out in other ways. A common one I see is when a child ‘crashes’ into people, doesn’t seem to have an awareness of personal space, eats unusually strong foods, or seeks out deep pressure like tight hugs and squeezes frequently. These children are not receiving the ‘typical’ amount of sensory input from their experiences, so they seek the input out themselves. Often this can look like behavioural difficulties or a lack of respect for the space of others, so it’s really important to determine if in fact there are underlying sensory processing differences contributing to the child’s presentation.
What to do:

  • It really helps to start observing your child in situations where you’re noticing behaviours and emotions that seem ‘trigger-less’. Could there be some sensory processing differences at play?
  • Be aware that even with sensory processing, your child will have more tolerance for the input on some days than on others. On some days, they might be able to tolerate loud sounds and overwhelming environments, whereas on other days if they’ve already reached their level of tolerance, being faced with the same situation might cause a meltdown.
  • If your child is struggling with processing sensory information, try to avoid exposure unless you have some sort of support or scaffolding in place. For instance:
    • Earmuffs for loud environments can work really well.
    • If your child struggles with situations like haircuts, try to look for alternative ways to make the situation easier. Attending on a quieter day, asking the hairdresser to use quieter clippers or scissors, or even finding a hairdresser who specialises in kids or provides home visits might be helpful.
    • Allow your child the freedom to move around if they’re seeking this, rather than expecting them to ‘sit still and avoid putting them in situations where this freedom to move won’t be allowed until you have other supports in place.
    • Look for clothing and fabrics that your child will tolerate
  • Book in to see a pediatric occupational therapist for an assessment and specialised recommendations.


Remember, when sensory difficulties are at the heart of your child’s challenges, empathy and understanding will go a long way to helping them.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova