Hair trouble: Tips for avoiding tangles and tears

Tips for dealing with grooming struggles.

Six-year-old Gabrielle would gladly go every day without having her hair brushed. “She has naturally curly hair that often tangles,” explains her mom, Danielle Prince,* “so we run into tears and screams if I’m not careful.”

It’s not just curls that can cause trouble. “I think baby-fine hair might be the worst,” says Hilary Trant, a stylist at Melonhead Children’s Hair Salon in Markham, Ont. “That fine-textured hair mats up in a second!”

Not that there has to be an obvious reason for grooming struggles. “A lot of kids do have sensitive scalps,” says Trant. “And at this age, their hair is thicker and may be longer than when they were preschoolers, and they’re not used to it.”

This is a problem that tends to be solved (sometimes with a vengeance) over time. But in the meantime, there are ways to help:

Monkey see, monkey do. Whether the issue is haircuts, brushing or shampooing, “it helps if the child watches the parents doing the primping from a young age,” suggests Lorri Dar, owner of Kokopelli Salon in Vancouver. “You want to make it a familiar routine that everyone does.”

DIY. “Let them start the job; they know the sensitive places better than you. Then you can finish up,” says Trant.

Get the right tools… “Get a nice big soft paddle brush,” says Trant. Prince agrees. “I find that the more bristles a brush has, the better—it seems to separate the hair out and not catch as much. I only ever use a comb once the hair has been thoroughly brushed and all the tangles are out, and just for things like getting ponytails nice and neat.”

…and the right product. “A lot of people avoid putting conditioner on kids’ hair because they feel it’s not necessary, but to the child it makes a big difference,” says Trant. “Start with a children’s shampoo, so it’s gentle. And then a conditioner, depending on the hair type.” You may have to experiment to find a conditioner that helps with the tangles without leaving your child’s hair greasy. A leave-in conditioner can reduce static. Spray-on is great for after the pool: “At eight years, they can spray it in themselves and start to brush it,” Trant adds. “But spray-ons may look too greasy on fine hair—you have to be careful.” You may also try a children’s detangling shampoo.

And if none of that really helps, you might want to resort to the “crazy hair lady” who visits Prince’s house on Tuesday mornings. “That woman has Gabrielle chomping at the bit to get in the bathroom and get her hair brushed,” marvels Prince. “She’s a silly person with a funny accent who comes to do the girls’ hair and they love her! They say she so closely resembles me it’s uncanny. Of course I’ve never seen her myself…”

Whose style rules?

While there are some young kids whose hair conflicts stem from a complete lack of interest in grooming (I remember trying to take a couple of swipes with a brush at the back of my son’s head as he dodged out the door), there are others in this age group—yes, mostly girls—who already have a very keen interest in their appearance. And that means they’ll have opinions about how they want their hair to look—opinions which you may not share.

Danielle Prince has found a little negotiation goes a long way with her daughter Gabrielle. “She would rather wear her hair down, but it always looks scraggly. We have a deal—on most school days I let her wear it down. But there are times when she has to let me do something with it, like braids or ponytails.”

Stylist Hilary Trant suggests that when kids start taking responsibility for their own grooming, it’s a good idea to swallow your vicarious pride and live with the results. “If she’s happy with that funny little ponytail with bits falling out, leave it! It’s that little bit of independence. And the more you push, the bigger fight you’ll have.”

*Names have been changed by request