By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 42


Sensory wise solutions podcast title card with a bubble bath and rubber duck. The title reads, Episode 42: The number one reason your kid hates hygiene tasks

Have you ever wondered why your kid hates grooming tasks like taking a bath, washing their hair, brushing their teeth, and any other task that keeps them, you know, clean and hygienic? In this blog post, you’ll learn the main reason why they might hate it, especially if they’re sensory sensitive.

Do you ever worry that your neighbors might call CPS on you for the blood-curdling screams your child lets out during bath time? 

What about teeth brushing, or hair brushing? 

Nail cutting? 

What do all these things have in common? 

They’re grooming tasks that are commonly stressful for sensory-sensitive kids, and while they may seem dramatic, I’m here to tell you their experience is real.

Here’s why your kid might hate grooming tasks

The thing about grooming tasks is they’re typically out of the child’s control; it’s something that is being done to them. 

You wash their hair.

You cut their nails.

You’re 1 inch away from putting them in a choke-hold just to prop their mouth open to brush their teeth. 

While most people like to be in control of their bodies, it’s even more true for sensory-sensitive children.

Kids who are sensory sensitive to things like touch tend to prefer to be in control of the input. 

It makes sense, right? 

When you’re in control of the stimulus, you feel safer and more confident. 

When you’re not in control of it, you feel vulnerable. 

The underlying sensory triggers in grooming tasks

So let’s dive a bit deeper. Your child may hate grooming tasks because it’s out of their control, but what sensory systems are most at play here?

8 sensory systems comprise our nervous system, but the main sense that triggers meltdowns around grooming tasks is the tactile (touch) sense. 

[Click here for a free guide to learning about the 8 sensory systems] 

For example, many kids with sensory sensitivities complain of discomfort or pain with:

Auditory sensitivities may also be triggered from some grooming tasks, such as:

Lastly, if you have a vestibular sensitive kid, they may dislike rinsing their hair in the bathtub because of the feeling they get when they have to tilt back their head, which can trigger a startle response and make them feel like they’re falling. 

girl having wet hair brushed

Here’s where grooming gets tricky

Even when something starts as a sensory sensitivity (e.g. your child’s discomfort with the feeling of their hair being rinsed), it can transform into a stronger, learned fear or avoidance of that activity. 

More specifically, these non-negotiable grooming tasks that you have to force your child through often can create strong anxiety or fear in their brain. 

As their brain continues to experience this fight or flight protective response in the context of the bathroom, for example, the brain starts to create shortcuts to avoid it. 

So now the child may start crying right before bathtime or as soon as you mention the word bath time rather than crying or fighting during bath time.

Don’t panic, you can help them feel safe around grooming tasks.

Take a deep breath. 

You have not traumatized your child by bathing them or brushing their teeth.

You are keeping them safe and hygienic and doing what’s best for them.

Take another deep breath.

You can start slowly un-doing that scare factor that unfortunately has been associated with some grooming tasks due to your child’s sensory profile.

Creating positive associations with grooming tasks

Start creating positive associations with the environment and the context of that grooming task. 

What do I mean by that? Here are some examples:

Keep in mind, that you may be working against years of negative associations with the grooming task, so this isn’t an overnight fix. 

In addition to being intentional about creating more positive associations with the context of these tasks, you also want to create more patterns of consistent regulation.

Consistent and proactive regulation is key

Kids with sensory sensitivities often experience sensory dysregulation. 

When they’re dysregulated, they’re more likely to have intense meltdowns and behaviors around their triggers (like bath time).

When they’re more regulated, they’re more likely to be flexible, try new things and be calmer in those situations.

Setting your child up for regulation is an easier task than pulling them out of dysregulation. 

But remember: every child’s sensory needs are different. 

A one size fits all regulation plan doesn’t exist, unfortunately (wouldn’t that be so convenient?).

You need to be a sensory detective to figure out what regulates them, or work with an OT for more insight (hint, heavy work might be an excellent place to start). 

Once you realize which sensory inputs regulate your child, you want to try to work it into your daily routine so your child has opportunities throughout the day to nourish their nervous system.

So here’s the bottom line:

Give these tips a try (and in the meantime, send this article to your neighbors so they won’t have to worry). 

If you’re reading/listening to this the week of September 18th, 2022- the doors to my popular group coaching program for parents of sensory sensitive children (Sensory W.I.S.E. Solutions) is open for fall enrollment. Learn more about that here so I can help you take actionable steps to making your kids hate grooming less 😉 

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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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