A Mum I know... The Girl With the Filthy Hair


Psychologist, parent consultant and mum, Michelle Ryan-Gittens, shares her client’s stories on child behaviour.


Client #33: The Girl with the Filthy Hair.


 A mum I know, Anj, asked me for advice regarding her 3 year old daughter who did not like getting her hair washed. And when I say ‘did not like’ I mean she despised it in a I’d-rather-suck-on-the-toilet-duck kind of way.* 


Anj was despairing. She could not go through the hairwashing fight anymore; the screaming, pushing, the kicking and the splashy tantrums. She had tried everything from sugary bribes to creative threats and of course, some good old fashioned reasoning; ‘if you don’t wash your hair all the cockroaches will move in and lay their little eggs and then you will have baby cockroaches living in your dirty hair and all your friends will think you are disgusting and won’t play with you anymore and you will die on the couch a sad and lonely death but no one will notice for days…’.  


Nothing worked and the little ones hair was getting pretty disgusting. And because it was tangly and dirty, it also was also painful to brush so it was a downward spiral (although spray-on conditioner did help). Not only had I come across many toddlers experiencing a similar aversion to hair washing, I had an even deeper empathy – my daughter had been exactly the same.


When my girl was a baby, she was as happy as a penguin splashing in the bath. Washing her hair was not a complete joy but was by no means a traumatic experience. Then, somewhere into the toddler years, hair washing became a battle of slippery skin and inadvertently stung eyes and wondering if the neighbours would send around Child Protection Services to investigate the screaming.


I also tried everything as I delved into the depths of my professional knowledge, secretly googled ‘my child hates hair washing’ (http://www.helpmealison.com/ hair-washing-tips-for-kids.htmlhas some good ideas!) and bought every product on the market – specially shaped pouring jugs, visors, goggles, squirty toys, fairy princess mermaid babushka Barbie bride decorated shampoo bottles…


It’s not always the case for anti-hair-washers but the main issue for my daughter, and for my client’s, was that she didn’t like her face getting wet. She didn’t like it at swimming lessons, in the bath, or even when she flushed the toilet with her head halfway down the bowl ‘to see where the poo goes’. And no matter how hard you try, hair washing usually means a wet face or at the very least for your child, the fear of a wet face. 


My husband’s strategy was to ‘just do it’, as quickly as possible, and put up with the pain. He poured buckets of water on her head as her screaming became more and more frenzied. The ‘just do it’ approach not only left her in distress (despite the treats afterward) but she was even more unwilling the next time around. We all just suffered through that for a while because I think we had that greatest hope: that she would grow out of it, inexplicably, over night, with no apparent motivation from her or effort from us.


We did eventually get there, and by 4 years old my daughter didn’t blink when we washed her hair. She now loves to get involved with it all, particularly the pouring of the slime (conditioner) for her to brush out.


So this is what I suggested to Anj:

1.    Start by desensitizing your little girls head which so rarely gets touched now – give her head massages, stroke her forehead as you sing goodnight, wear hats/headbands/wigs during dress-ups, do the balloon hair rubbing trick etc. If this is too awful for her, especially if there are similar things she doesn’t like (such as getting her hands dirty or wearing certain clothing materials) it might be worth checking in with an Occupational Therapist that has an interest in sensory processing. 


2.    Start doing hair washing with her dolls while she is in the bath – the doll’s body out of the bath but head in, hairdressing salon style. Just wet and wash the end of dolly’s hair. Even use a wet cloth for the rinsing so the doll’s face doesn’t get wet. Make sure your girl is in charge of pouring shampoo and frothing into the foam. That’s the best bit. Sing some songs, do some groovy hairstyles, empathise with dolly if she gets a bit worried ‘I know you are worried dolly but my daughter is a super amazing careful hairdresser and won’t let you get wet.’



3.    After dolly’s hair and the bath is finished, wrap your daughter in a towel and pile up the pillows for her to sit on so she gets a turn at the hair salon. Exchange pleasantries, offer a magazine, explain the costing (at least 2 buttons for such beautiful hair)! Now just wet the bottom of the hair with the soapy bathwater and avoid the scalp. She could put a headband over her forehead if that works. Rinse the ends, dry off, high five for a great job (as long as you get paid thanks!) and off to get pj’s on.


You get the picture; if she isn’t keen to visit the salon this time, try next time and then clean higher and higher up the hairline each wash. Be patient though - you will be getting that scalp clean all in good time. You can work on the face wetting at other times, swimming lessons will help, but also water balloon fights, running through sprinklers, squirty toy wars and so on.


If you have a little one who votes for the Hair Washing Sucks Forever Party this might help. Of course if face wetting is not the reason for their disdain (although this includes fear of stingy eyes and dislike of scalp touching) a different plan might be necessary.


Good luck with your clean follicle phobic and see you next time for the mum I knowwho had a 2 year old who gave his dinner to the dog each night then had violent tantrums because his food was gone.


*It should be noted that sucking the toilet duck is not such a horrific thought to a 3 year old. I once caught my toddler lifting the toilet duck toward her mouth about to enjoy a little nibble. I suspect she was only trying to wash down the taste of the toilet brush that she had previously been sucking on