Bathtime and hairwashing

“In their anxiety about dirty hair, parents often forcibly wash their children’s hair or try to get them to allow shampoo on their hair. Bathtime then becomes a battle instead of fun, the child feeling as frantic to maintain control over what happens to them as you or I might in a similar situation. Exerting more coercive control over the child is a recipe for disaster.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on the Home-ed list on 30th September, 1995

Since you mentioned me by name, I just had to answer. 🙂

“Carrie won’t let me wash her hair. … I’m worried that she’s going to become a Rasta-person with dreadlocks.”

If she likes bathing generally, it is highly unlikely that this might happen. It is not necessary to “formally” wash hair—not here, anyway—it just gets washed in general bathtime playing.

“She gets in the tub just fine and she will even let me put some plain water on her hair but that’s it. If I even suggest applying soap (plain tear-free) she crumbles into a screaming and crying heap at the back of the tub. I try reasoning with her (it works fine in other situations), but I can’t bring myself to physically force her.”

Good, because the more pressure you put on her, the worse the problem is likely to get. If instead, you can bring yourself to relax about it (try thinking calmly about the real situation—is there really a risk of the “dreadlock look”, and would it be the end of the world if her hair was rather dirty for a while, and so on) it’ll all sort itself out eventually.

I know how hard it is, though, when one is worried about something, to just r-e-l-a-x—and I also know that it is on those occasions when I am unable to relax about something, that all the problems happen—because children sense your feelings and feel pressurised, and that tends to entrench their current behaviour or whatever. But you could try some of the brilliant suggestions others have made—just be prepared to completely back off if she is not happy. This is a problem she will not always have! (Effects of extreme coercion notwithstanding!)

The main point to remember is that she must be confident that she is in control. Feeling controlled by you (wanting to wet her hair, etc.)—not being in control herself—is very very bad in these sort of situations. That feeling is utterly terrifying—and it is the cause of much unnecessary suffering, pain, fear and so on.

This situation reminds me of my wonderful dentist… He knows this: he knows about the relationship between pain and fear and lack of control, and he bends over backwards to ensure that the person feels completely in control and out of pain. If a child does not want her teeth looked at that day, my dentist does not try to force her; he doesn’t even charge for the “wasted” appointment. He knows that it is far more important that children feel okay about it, and come back another day, than have an examination forced upon them, and never want to go again. Until a friend recommended him, I had not dared go to a dentist for three years (or maybe more) because of the pain and so on. Now, I am completely confident that there will be no pain. This is what your daughter needs to feel about washing her hair. Take her fear and distress seriously, and the problem will go away.

“I’ve never coerced her …”

Then we probably have different definitions of coercion, since I’d say that she is experiencing coercion (but that is a different matter from your intentions, of course).

“(what would that lady, Sarah(?), say about this one?)”

Hey, who’re you calling a “Lady”?! 🙂

“…either physically or emotionally to do it but I’m beginning to suspect that she must have been drown in a vat of tear-free soap in a previous life.”

Don’t start coercing now, or it’ll just get worse and worse. Really—it is no big deal if her hair isn’t washed—some people say that one should never wash one’s hair, that it is completely unnecessary, and that after a while (2 months, I think it was) of zero washing, the hair reverts to its natural healthy glossy state. I have never tested this myself [eh hem] and I am not suggesting you should; I am just pointing out that this problem is as much a problem of yours as it is of hers, and that you might be able to find a way not to worry about it, and that if you do that, the problem might disappear anyway.

One thing’s for sure, coercion is the last thing that might help her over this. If she is frightened, just think how terrifying it would be for her to be forced to undergo this. [shudder] This is a person you are dealing with here, not an animal.

“She has no trouble washing her hands and face anytime that I ask and I’ve even made her a fine little “hat brim” out of closed cell foam sheet to keep the water and soap out of her eyes. She’ll wear the “hat” and she’ll get her hair wet but just don’t reach for the shampoo…, or else.”

BTW, I had a friend at college who used to wash his hair with ordinary soap, as in—a bar of—and he had beautiful hair. As someone else said, shampoo is not necessary anyway. Water is fine. (That, we have tested.)

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Bathtime and hairwashing’,

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