Son doesn’t like change, throws fits when getting hair cut
by Mary Follin and Erika Guerrero
THE PROBLEM: My 7-year-old son can’t stand change. I’m not talking about moving to a new school, it’s more like him throwing a fit when he has to run an errand with me, leave a friend’s house, or even get a haircut. To everybody else, it looks like he’s unhappy all the time, but he’s not. He just has trouble adjusting to something new. And when he does experience bigger transitions, like getting a new teacher or a friend moves away, he becomes very fearful and hammers me with questions: “Why do I need a new teacher? Is my old teacher ever coming back? What if I don’t like the new teacher? What if she hates me?” Lately he’s begun biting his nails until they bleed and will even go to bed in the middle of the day when he’s confronted with something he’s unfamiliar with. Other than that, he’s fine! He’s a good student and has a lot of friends. It just seems to be this one thing.
MARY SAYS: Some kids are like kayaks; they bobble back into an upright position, no matter what goes on around them. Others, not so much, which appears to be the case with your son. When his environment shifts—even the slightest bit—his sensitivities go on high alert, and he responds accordingly.
It’s important to recognize that within the scope of your son’s own body/mind system, he is responding in a completely normal way. One of the easiest—and quickest—ways to help your son with transitions is to educate him on how to make things easier on himself when life brings about inevitable change.
Because that’s what life does. Change.
Start there with your son. Talk to him about change and how it never stops. Day turns into night and night into day. In the morning it rains, and in the afternoon, it snows. He’s hungry after recess, then eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and he’s full. Your son is doing what humans naturally gravitate toward doing—connecting one tiny shift to another and calling it one thing, like ‘a day’ or ‘lunch,’ which isn’t exactly the case.
Life is fluid from moment to moment, but for most of us, somebody needs to point that out.
Once your son becomes aware of the ‘micro-changes’ that are actually happening throughout the day, he’ll be able to attach less to the larger experience he’s in, thereby moving more gracefully from one moment to the next.
But awareness is just the first step, so he’ll need coaching on how to do that.
You might at first be tempted to make it a habit to describe activities—and schedules—in advance for your son, so he can be more prepared. Unfortunately, that can backfire, as you can’t always control what comes next, which is why I would recommend a different approach.
Here’s where a dry-erase board comes in handy. Sit down together and do a breakdown of one of his regular activities. Ask him to tell you what happens when he gets a haircut. He’ll probably say something like: “I go to the barber and sit in a chair. Then I get my haircut and I get a lollipop.”
Write down what he says in a numbered format:
- Go to barber
- Sit in chair
- Get haircut
- Get lollipop
Now, help him be more specific, asking him for help with the details:
- Get out of car
- Walk across parking lot
- Step onto sidewalk
- Open door to barber shop
- Walk in to barber shop
- Wipe feet on mat
- Check in at counter
You get the idea! Show him all the transactions required to get a haircut, but particularly the part at the end when you get back in the car, close the door, buckle up, and start driving, ending up at, say, the grocery store.
Make it a practice to have your son do this out loud for you during your daily activities. (People believe what they hear themselves say.) Once he becomes adept at identifying all the moving parts in whatever he’s doing, he won’t experience change as such a seismic event, but rather, as one small transaction after another: a step, a bite, or a single snip of the barber’s scissors.
ERIKA SAYS: Having difficulty with change can manifest in a variety of ways. Behaviors like having fits, nail biting, or retreating to his room are signs your son may be overwhelmed with emotions triggered by transitions. The uncertainty—and sometimes chaos—of the unknown can feel unsettling, even to adults.
At 7 years old, your son is still learning how to cope with big emotions.
For most of my teenage and adult life I’ve worked with children, and in all the years I’ve been in the education/childcare field, I’ve learned many things. One that I swear by is to let a child know that change is coming before it happens.
For example, when playing with friends, whether at a park or at home, you can follow these steps:
- Let your son know where you are going, which gives him a preview of the agenda.
- Advise him approximately how long you will be there.
- Tell him where you will be going afterwards so he knows what’s to come.
- Give him a ten-minute warning. Remind him of what’s next on your agenda.
- In five minutes, offer another gentle reminder that it will soon be time to go. Remind him again what to expect next.
- Give him a final warning, letting him know that it’s time to go.
- When time is up, tell him to say goodbye to his friends and remind him of what’s next.
- Don’t forget to praise him when he does great with a transition and encourage him when he’s struggling through one.
Be consistent with this practice. Children thrive on structure and a routine they can count on. When my son wakes up in the morning, I like to give him a rundown of what the day is going to look like. This involves him in the process while I prepare him for what to expect.
‘Involvement’ is the key here.
Recently, my son has been resisting trips to the grocery store, putting up a fight on our way there, upon our arrival, and into the grocery store. As you can imagine, this makes for a highly uncomfortable and less-than-enjoyable trip for the both of us. After giving it some thought, I’ve finally figured out a solution that has turned my unhappy little boy into a happy one while shopping. (Mostly, anyway!)
Now when we go to the grocery store, I make sure he’s part of the program, rather than just riding along.
First, I’ll put him in charge of reminding me of one or two things on my list. If the item is easy enough to find, I’ll send him off to retrieve it. I also use self-checkout and allow him to scan our stuff. He loves scanning—and making the payment, too.
Involving my son in our market trips has become a win-win situation for both of us. He gets to “have fun” shopping with mom, and I get to shop without having to diffuse a meltdown.
As an added bonus, he also gets to learn a life skill.
I understand your concern about your child always appearing to be unhappy, but the truth is, he’s expressing his emotions the only way he knows how. Our job as parents is to show our children how to regulate and express those emotions in a healthy way. I know it feels like all eyes are on us when are kids are ‘having a moment,’ but I guarantee that most people are either sympathizing or feel relieved they aren’t the only ones going through it.
ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in!
If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org
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Mary Follin is author of the award-winning children’s book ETHYR and Teach Your Child to Read™, an online phonics program for children ages 3-6. She is mom to two grown kids. Follow Mary on Instagram at @advice_mom.
Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.