Your preschooler’s first haircut in a "real" salon is sure to be a memorable milestone – but what if it’s memorable for all the wrong reasons? Instead of smiling brightly for a keepsake photo, a surprising number of youngsters freak out at the first snip of scissors through their hair. And often, even mom is startled by the meltdown.

"It’s easy for parents to underestimate how strongly their child may react to a new experience," says Karin Gregory, a registered clinical counsellor with Focus on the Family Canada. "Properly preparing a young child can create a much more positive outcome – especially if he or she is anxious by nature."

Get inside the mind of your preschooler

When it comes to a first-time visit to the dental office, parents usually do take steps to prepare their child, often seeking out an age-appropriate children’s book to help. But for many youngsters, it’s just not enough.

"Try to think about it from your child’s perspective," says Gregory. "You may chat several times about going to the dentist, but your child has no experience to draw on, no context for that discussion."

Consider, for a moment, all the new experiences your youngster will encounter at the dental office: there are weird smells and noises, and imposing equipment that does who knows what. Your child is plopped in an oversized chair that suddenly tilts way back, bright lights blaze, and a stranger looms above wielding strange metal implements. And whoa! He sure looks creepy in that mask!

From a preschooler’s perspective, a hair salon may not seem much "safer" than the dental office. The chair lurches up or down without warning, pointy scissors lurk at eye level, clippers crawl up the back of your child’s head buzzing like a giant bee, and mirrors play visual tricks. When the hairstylist at the station across the way suddenly "disappears" behind the mirror, will your child find it funny or freaky? What if only half her body disappears?

How you can smooth the way for your child

"Preparation is all about normalizing the experience and reducing the number of unfamiliar events," says Gregory. Reading a children’s book about visiting the dentist or hair salon is a great start, but there’s much more parents can do to help desensitize kids to the sights, sounds and sensations they will encounter. Try these suggestions for some fun playtime at home. Maybe they’ll jump-start new ideas that help you prepare your child for other types of appointments too, such as a visit to the doctor or the optometrist.

In preparation for a dental appointment:

Look for opportunities to play games in a reclining chair. Pretend you are astronauts about to blast off in a space shuttle, or oceanographers returning to the ocean surface in a submarine. More fantastical ideas include riding up a rainbow in a "rainbow train," or sailing skyward in a chariot pulled by a flying horse.

Spend an hour or two making masks that conceal the lower half of the face. Fun mask ideas include a beaver (with long incisors), a cat or a mouse (with pipe cleaner whiskers) or an elephant (with a long trunk). Casually mention that the dentist also wears a mask and talk about why his or her "sneeze catcher" is important. Play "Guess My Expression" while wearing your masks. Are you happy or sad, worried or relaxed? Is it hard to tell?

Play a game that encourages your child to open their mouth wide. Try "Can you show me how wide a mouse yawns? Can you show me how wide a donkey yawns? Can you show me how wide a hippo yawns?"

Use a small mirror to help your child view "hidden" areas of his or her teeth. (An emery board with one mirrored side works well.) Stand your child before a larger mirror, then hold the small mirror just inside his or her mouth, revealing the back side of the front teeth in the larger mirror.

Have a pretend dental checkup at home, with you acting as the dentist. Try to simulate as many elements of a real dental visit as possible. For example, wear a white lab coat or simply a white shirt, plus a face mask. Use a reclining chair if you have one, and place an apron on your child. Check gently around each tooth with a straw. If your patient is relaxed, you could even make slurping sounds, pretending to suck saliva out of the way. "Polish" your child’s teeth with a lightly moistened toothbrush, but don’t use toothpaste. (A reclining child may choke or swallow the toothpaste.)

Be careful how you explain the need for your dental visit. Remember that preschoolers don’t yet have abstract thinking skills and tend to live in the present, so your child won’t grasp the connection between today’s dental visit and preventing cavities in the future. It’s better to simply explain that the dentist needs to check that your child’s teeth are "happy and healthy." Remember too that your little one will pick up unspoken vibes. If you have deep-rooted anxiety about visiting the dentist yourself, it may be wise to have your spouse escort your child to the dentist and introduce all the preparatory discussion.

At the dental office: Hopefully you will have full confidence in the dentist you choose for your child. Be ready, however, to insist that the dentist proceed more slowly or cut short the appointment if necessary. It’s important that your child has a sense of control: ensure your child understands how to make a "pause" signal the dentist will recognize.

In preparation for a haircut:

Let your child dress up in a "super hero cape." The cape doesn’t need to be elaborate – a length of light fabric plus your child’s imagination will do the trick. During play, mention that your child will wear something like a super hero cape at the hair salon, but it goes on backwards!

Introduce spray bottles into your child’s bath-time play routine. If your child can’t adjust to having their hair dampened with a spray bottle, ask the hairstylist to comb water through your child’s hair instead.

Familiarize your child with a blow dryer before their hair appointment. But if your child resolutely objects to the noise or sensation of the hairdryer, plan to skip this step at the salon. Help ease your child’s first encounter with the hairstylist’s electric clippers by introducing them to the sound and sensation of the trimmer on dad’s electric shaver.

Have some fun with mirrors. Place a mirror at 90 degrees to your mid-line (a full-length dress mirror or mirrored closet door works best) and show your child some fun illusions. Make a hat appear to float off your head (by raising it with your hand hidden behind the mirror), then make your whole body appear to float off the floor (by lifting one leg). Next, hold a mid-sized mirror in front of your child with the larger mirror behind. Show your child how his or her reflection appears to repeat into infinity.

Don't leave room for false assumptions. Show your little one how long you expect their hair will be after their haircut. Reassure them that it won’t be extreme – that they won’t leave the hair salon bald!

At the hair salon: Allow your child some control over the process. Would they like to keep their eyes open or closed? Would they like gel? Would they like to leave with their hair loose, or in a pretty hair band? If the sight of those menacing scissors causes distress, try turning the chair away from the mirror. If necessary, ask the stylist to abandon the clippers and only use scissors.

Don’t miss the bigger reward

It’s a mistake to focus solely on getting your child through their appointment without tears. There’s much more to gain here. As a wise parent, you’ll use the experience to build your child’s confidence and a healthy track record of overcoming their fears.

In practice, this doesn’t mean emphasising the fear factor – it’s important to focus on the positive aspects. After the appointment, you can simply say something like, "I noticed you looked a little worried when the chair tilted back. But you were brave and stayed in the chair. That shows you are growing up! Wasn’t it funny that the dentist had a TV in the ceiling?"

Even if your child’s appointment was a disaster, celebrate the gains. Did he or she only get as far as climbing in the chair? Celebrate that accomplishment. Did junior merely make it through the front door? Celebrate that too. Make your child feel special for whatever they accomplished, and try again within the week.

If your child’s anxiety is extreme, however, you may need to consider systematic desensitization. Check out Focus on the Family Canada’s Kids of Integrity lessons too. The courage lesson offers numerous Scripturally-based discussions and activities to help build confidence in children ages three to 10.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2012 Focus on the Family Canada. All rights reserved.

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