Saturday 7 December 2019

Ask the expert: my three-year-old won't let me wash her hair. Any ideas?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice

Q: I have a lovely, intelligent, three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. She is great, until it comes to washing her hair. Bath time itself does not present an issue, she loves playing in the water and washing herself. Even with lots of warning and instruction about how to tilt her head back, the moment I start pouring water on her head she starts freaking out. The situation becomes so traumatic for both of us that it normally ends with her and me in tears, and she could be screaming too. I have tried treats, bribery etc. to no avail. Have you any ideas?

David replies: Many small children have an aversion to having their hair washed. Indeed, some have a real phobia about it. But, usually, it is just a phase that they go through and they outgrow it pretty quickly.

However, growing out of the fear is much easier achieved when we don't, unwittingly, keep exposing them to the very thing they are anxious or stressed about.

Indeed, by continuing to force them to wash their hair, repeatedly telling them there is nothing to worry about, we may actually prolong their anxiety, making the situation worse.

In some cases, when we subject our toddlers and pre-schoolers to the very thing they are terrified of, they may feel that we have turned on them or at the very least that we don't care about their scary feelings or that their scary feelings don't matter.

Even if we don't feel that their fear of, or reluctance towards, hair washing is rational, it is still worth respecting and validating. Who knows what small event triggered their strong dislike of getting their hair washed, but it was relevant enough for them to protest and struggle every time you now attempt to wash their hair.

So, perhaps you need to change tack with your daughter. In the overall scheme of things, it doesn't matter if her hair is washed or not. She will have natural oils that protect her hair.

Rather than assuming that at every bath she will have to have her hair washed, give her the choice each time you bathe her. Ask her if she wants her hair washed or not. If she says "no" then don't force the issue. If she says "okay", then take your normal careful approach.

It is great that your daughter is comfortable in, and enjoys, the water. You can use this to your advantage. Once she is in the bath, think about it as game time.

So, for example, you could encourage her to try 'floating games' on her back while in the bath. This will naturally let her hair fall into the water. Even without shampoo this may be enough of a rinse to last a couple of days.

Similarly, with the summer weather, there is an opportunity to mess about with garden hoses and paddling pools, also creating chances to wet or rinse her hair without the fuss of a formal hair wash.

For some particular sticky situations, with something like jam caught in her hair, suggest that you might just 'spot wash' it with a wet facecloth, rather than trying to wash all of her hair with shampoo and water.

Let her watch this in the mirror, or even let her try herself. Giving her more control over the cleaning of her hair may help. It may be that she just hates the lack of control while having her head tipped back.

Beyond just letting nature and her own development move her beyond the hair-washing impasse, it might be worth also talking about the fears she might have about water on her head, or running down her face, neck, etc.

So, while she is in the bath you can talk about how scared she might feel, guessing at some of the potential triggers (like lack of control, or water running into her eyes). Even if she doesn't talk back, it will still be helpful for her to know that you might understand just how scary or distressing it is to have her hair washed.

Once she knows that you 'get it', she might be more ready for you to help her to expose herself, gradually, to more and more water on her head. It is really important that you don't try to push her too quickly into 'formal' hair washing, but go at her pace and as she seems comfortable.

Mostly, time, patience and a willingness not to force the issue, will sort out her hair-washing distress.

How can I help my disruptive 10-year-old son who is struggling with the death of his granny last year?

Q. I think my 10-year-old son is struggling over the death of my mother. She had a stroke and died within two days, about this time last year. She minded him when he was a baby and he went to her every day after school for a few hours until I finished work. Things have been very bad in school, where he is actively causing trouble in the class and with the teacher. At home he is angry and resentful a lot of the time. I think it might be her death affecting him, but I can't bear to talk to him about her, as it is still too upsetting for me too.

David replies: Your son's relationship with his granny must have been very close. She sounds like she was a very significant carer for him. I could imagine her death has been really difficult for him to come to terms with it.

Indeed, it sounds like her death has been very difficult for you to come to terms with too. Her stroke and subsequent death must have come as a huge shock to you all.

No doubt your whole family has been grieving and, as I am sure you are finding, grieving is not a quick process. It can take a long time to mourn someone's death and to accommodate to the loss of them and all that they represented in your life.

For your son especially, not only is he likely to be missing her, emotionally, but he has also got to try to cope with the changes in his care over the last year too, since he can no longer go to her after school. This disruption to his routine may have been as difficult for him to become accustomed to as her death itself.

It is little surprise to me that his school behaviour may have changed. His anger, which is witnessed in school and which you describe at home is also, probably, part of his natural emotional response to his granny's death.

The most intense feelings that arise in the acute stages of grief are often sadness, anger, guilt or shame. Despair and hopelessness are also feelings that seem to come at some stage in the process of grieving.

Remember that your son is only 10, and many children will reflect their emotional upset in disturbed or disrupted behaviour.

You might like to think about his behaviour as his way of trying, unconsciously, to show you that he is really upset by his granny's death, how much he misses her, and that he may be struggling to get used to the new care arrangements for the few hours each day until you finish work.

He may, in fact, be more reliant on acting out his distress in his behaviour if he feels that it is not okay to talk about his feelings for his granny. From what you say he may be getting an explicit, or implicit, message from you that you are not able or willing to talk to him about her.

I would imagine that, at different times, you have been very distressed also by your mum's death. I am sure there are times when you can't, indeed, bear to talk about her and the loss you have had.

Naturally, all of your emotional and psychological energy may be used up in grieving and coping yourself. This does, however, make it very hard for your son, who may need some adult guidance and support to deal with his feelings.

I think that your son may well need to be told, explicitly, that it is okay to talk about his granny, because he may, still, feel he has no permission to do so because it will be too upsetting for you.

Even though it is really hard, it is helpful for your son if you can be the one to talk with him about his granny.

I would encourage you to talk to him about her, even if you cry the whole way through. He needs to know that whatever his feelings are, that they are okay to be felt. You need to validate his distress, however it is felt, so that he can start to make sense of his feelings and deal with them.

If you feel you are struggling to do this, then do consider counselling for him or perhaps a Rainbows group if one runs in the community (

It sounds like such a tragic loss for your family and one that requires love, care, time and patience to accommodate to. Help him to connect as much as he can to his feelings and let time do the rest.

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