Q: My 3 year old is refusing to sit for a haircut. We have gotten haircuts in the past without too much drama, but recently it comes with a complete meltdown and no haircut! Is there something going on with him that we are not aware of or is there a power struggle going on here? Will we traumatize him if we hold him just to get it done?
A: Children of 3 and 4 often develop strong aversions to various everyday experiences, aversions which are altogether mysterious in their causes. The child reacts as if the (in this instance) haircut is a life-and-death violation of personal integrity or terrifying invasion of personal space. In understanding these phenomena, we must acknowledge that there are a large number of unavoidable everyday events which rub a 3 or 4 year old's nose in their powerlessness and helplessness, and stimulate considerable humiliation and rage. Being 3 and 4 is stressful, under the best of circumstances. As a consequence, it is my belief that parents are wise to side-step such aversive experiences whenever it is possible to do so without some sort of important unfortunate consequence.
I am pretty sure that holding your son down so that someone can give him a haircut is likely to be a traumatic event for him, for the barber, and for you. This will not make him grow up to be an axe murderer, but it isn't going to do your relationship with your son any good. If you can skip the barbershop for six months and perhaps take a casual snip off his mop while he is brushing his teeth now and then, the overall result might be in everyone's best interest. You are not teaching him that he can always get his way--you are helping (since you are the grown-ups) to arrange his reality in a manner that does not add more stress than there needs to be.
Power struggles that involve safety are struggles that the parent must win. You don't negotiate over whether your son can play ball in the middle of traffic or stick a fork into Grandma's cat. You just don't let it happen. But many power struggles can be avoided, if parents are willing to make a diplomatic maneuver now and then. This can be a good thing!
Elizabeth Berger MD
Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"