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Starting at around 14 months (and sometimes until age 5 or 6), many children find haircuts absolutely intolerable. Perhaps it's those big, shiny scissors coming so close to their vulnerable lobes and napes. Upon getting his first trim, for instance, one little boy I know simply howled, "Them's my EARS!"
You're right in thinking that forcibly restraining your toddler makes things worse. In fact, I'm surprised that you can hold him still enough for those tender ears to remain unscathed. Coupled with the trauma of being pinned down while haircutting shears slash their way around his head, a child's natural fear of haircuts may become a phobia. If that happens, a picture or the mere thought of a haircut can frighten a toddler terribly. Even if your child's apprehension centers around an actual, imminent haircut, the worst part of his fear isn't those looming scissors, but the horrible panicky feeling of fear itself. That's why you can never teach a child not to be afraid by frightening him even more. Indeed, every time you force your toddler to sit through his fear, you make it grow. The only haircut that will truly convince him that "there's nothing to be afraid of" is the haircut that doesn't scare him. That said, these steps should help lessen the trauma surrounding haircuts:
For some kids, the formality of a trip to the barbershop is what's frightening: entering a strange, funny-smelling environment; getting teased and cooed over by the assembled patrons there; climbing into a large, odd-looking contraption; and being wetted down and wrapped in plastic garments. If you suspect this might be the case, try cutting your toddler's hair at home while he sits on the floor and looks at something other than his own tense face in a mirror — his favorite video, perhaps, or a simple puzzle you've set up to distract him. If his fear is really focused on those scissors, try substituting clippers or a long-handled razor instead. Having a friend or sibling nearby can also help put your toddler at ease. My local hairdresser often wedges two kids in the chair together and alternates snips and comic asides. It gets the job done, if not perfectly.
When you do what you can to make haircuts as pleasant as possible, your toddler will see that you're on his side. Once that happens, he may even surprise you by exercising startling self-control. When he does, though, don't push it — four snips without tears are worth 40 in panic. What's more, if your child is proud of his bravery in the face of those haircutting shears today, he's far more likely to let you use them again a few weeks down the line.
If nothing you do enables your child to stay calm and hold still long enough for even the most cursory trim, however, it makes sense to back off and give his anxiety a chance to fade. After all, temporarily shaggy hair is infinitely preferable to fights, force, and lasting fear.