Shaving and Hair Removal for Teens with Disabilities

As a school-based occupational therapist, during this period of distance learning, I’ve been creating a series of parent resources on ADLs and how they can be addressed at home. I wanted to share this information with a wider audience, so I’ll be posting them here as well. I hope this information is helpful!

Puberty brings a whole new set of challenges to development, and shaving and hair removal are no exception. Teens with disabilities face these same changes with the added obstacles of potential deficits in visual-motor skills, attention, and cognition. However, there are still a variety of opportunities for teens with disabilities to participate in the ADL of shaving/hair removal – they just might take some exploring! While many of these strategies can be implemented without outside help, an occupational therapist may also be able to help your child with this activity. 

  • First, make sure there is a reason to remove hair. 
    • Typically, hair removal is done for social/cultural reasons. It’s okay and perfectly healthy for anyone to decide they don’t want to remove hair. 
    • If your child is starting to grow hair that is typically removed, check in with them and see if they are interested in removing it. Social norms are changing and it’s becoming more fashionable to refrain from removing hair. 
    • If your child is nonverbal or doesn’t have a preference, there may also be hygienic reasons for removing hair, such as making toileting hygiene less time-consuming. 
  • Consider safety first.
    • Consider your child’s range of motion, motor skills, and ability to follow directions before giving them a razor. Ideally, your child will be successful using other blades such as cutting with a knife first. 
    • Be prepared for small nicks to happen! This is typical. However, consider if your child has underlying medical conditions that would make this more dangerous. 
    • Preload them with the rules before ever handing them the razor. 
Teens should be allowed to decide if they want to keep facial hair or not!
  • Consider the type of razor/tool. 
    • Does your child have grasping issues? They may benefit from a bigger handle. 
    • A U-cuff can also help make grasping an item possible.
    • You may need to experiment with several different types of razors before finding one that works best for your child. 
  • Consider positioning.
    • Though shaving typically happens in the shower or standing at the sink, trying in a seated position may be easiest first. You can use a shower chair, tub bench, or just sit on the bathroom floor. 
    • Use a mirror so that your child can get visual feedback.
  • Break it down into steps.
    • Try backward chaining. This simply means doing all of the first steps of the task and allowing the child to complete the very last step. Once they’ve mastered the last step, you can have them do the second to last step and so on. This helps them get the reward of completing the task.
Shaving cream can be a great visual cue.
  • Use visuals.
    • You can use drawings or real-life pictures of your child completing the task.
    • Try taping them on the wall or mirror right by the sink.
    • Shaving Face Visuals
    • Shaving Body Visuals
    • Also consider how shaving cream itself can be used as a visual cue for where the child still needs to shave. 
  • Use video modeling.
  • Plan extra time to allow your child to attempt the task independently.
    • It’s easy to be in a rush and start doing parts of the process, such as opening the shaving cream. 
    • Give a verbal prompt to do the task and then sit back and observe what your child can do. 
  • Work on grading the motion.
    • Try applying shaving cream to a balloon/plastic ball first – your child will learn how to apply enough pressure to remove the shaving cream but not so much that the balloon/ball pops.
    • After they’ve graduated from this, have them try shaving with the cover on the razor.
    • Cue your child to be especially careful around bony prominences/the curves of their body.  
  • Teach your child the proper shaving motions. 
    • Typically, it’s best to start going with the grain first. You can then go against the grain to get a closer shave.
    • Teach your child to pull their skin taut as needed.
    • Teach your child to do a long continuous stroke if possible as opposed to a series of short ones. 
  • Consider alternatives to shaving.
    • If it’s not possible for your child to be safe/successful with a traditional razor, they may be able to be independent with another method.
      • Electric razor – you can try with or without the guard. 
      • Depilatory (hair removal) creams – be careful with chemical burns and make sure to use a timer. 
      • Epilator – device that mechanically grasps multiple hairs and pulls them out – may be painful, but no danger of cuts or nicks. 
      • Waxing/sugaring – both apply a sticky material/paste. Sugaring is made of natural ingredients and pulls with the direction of the hair, waxing may be chemical or natural and pulls against the hair. 
      • Laser hair removal/electrolysis – the most expensive option, but can have longer-lasting or permanent results. Unable to do at home. 
      • Tweezing – pulling out hairs individually – best for small areas. 
      • Threading – a technique for quickly pulling out hairs with sewing thread. Similar to tweezing – usually used with small areas. 
  • Even if your child can’t do it completely independently, consider what parts of the process they can be involved in.
  • Use a reward system or positive reinforcement.
    • Consider using a token economy such as a sticker chart. Give your child a sticker every time they successfully complete the task – then allow them to trade in a certain amount of stickers for a prize.
    • Consider praising each step. Some children benefit from really high levels of positive reinforcement.
  • Give your child some control over the task.
    • This can help give them more buy-in as well as curtail any negative behaviors. 
    • Let them pick out a special shaving cream beforehand, or give them a choice between two colors of razors. 
  • Have your child teach you.
    • This is a great way to see what they know and it can be super motivating for certain children!
Teaching all the steps of shaving hygiene, including cleanup, is important.
  • Model the same behavior.
    • Let your children watch you shaving. As much as you can, talk aloud and narrate each step as you do it. 
  • Practice!
    • It almost goes without saying, but the key to becoming proficient in these skills is practicing them and making them part of daily routines. 

I hope these strategies for hair removal have given you some things to consider when supporting teens with disabilities. With practice, it’s possible to improve participation in these tasks that can seem slightly scary before you attempt them. If you have other strategies for this ADL, I would love to hear them!

Looking to improve your school-based practice? Tired of pushing aside important ADL skills to work on handwriting for the umpteenth time? My new course, The Dynamic School OT, will help transform your school-based practice. Read more and sign up today!

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