Sunscreen Wars

By Catherine Rosalion.

A Melbourne summer is upon us, and for all parents that means beginning the constant battles of putting on hats and applying sunscreen. For parents of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or sensory issues enjoying the surf and sun can become more like a WAR!
So, how do we gently encourage these youngsters to Slip, Slop and Slap (and maybe even Slide!) without it becoming a battle of wills and tears for all involved? From my extensive experience of teaching children with ASD for over 15 years I have seen many innovative and interesting approaches used when attempting to apply sunscreen to little ones, but here are some proven tips that really do work:

1. Make sure that there is a routine and consistency around hats and sunscreen. Maybe sunscreen is applied last thing every morning before leaving the house and whenever your child is playing outside they MUST wear a hat and have sunscreen on (or have their body covered by clothing). Kids are very smart and can work out ways of getting around the ‘rules’ if you are not consistent. Child care centres, kindergartens and schools have employed a ‘no hat – no play’ rule so following this at home and when out will help children be safe and feel safe knowing what is expected of them.

2. Provide plenty of warning before applying sunscreen or expecting a hat to be worn. The element of surprise by rushing up behind a child and quickly smothering them in screen can seem an appealing way of avoiding the sunscreen war, although it is not very respectful to the child and it is best to give them due warning. Before sunscreen and hats make sure you tell your child that you are going outside soon and it is hot and sunny so they will need to put on (and leave on!) their hat and have sunscreen on. Giving a 5, 3 and then a 1 minute warning can work well and when you are down to the 1 minute warning you could give the option of putting on the sunscreen and hat now or in one minute. You may be surprised that many children will actually chose to do it now and get it over and done with!

3. Allow children some freedom and independence to make their own choices. As a parent, providing a ‘closed choice’ to a young child can be a win-win situation where the child feels empowered and respected and the parents know they have still got their way! Have a choice of hats ready to show to your child and say “Would you like to wear the blue hat or the dinosaur hat today?” and allow the child to make their own choice from just the two options provided. When your child needs added protection from the sun, you could say “Would you like to have sunscreen on or wear a long sleeve top to play outside?” (again having both options to show the child and allowing them to make their own decision). Help children be involved when you go shopping for their bathers or sunglasses as they are more likely to want to wear things they like and have chosen themselves.

4. Make wearing hats and sunscreen into a learning experience. Every minute in a child’s life can be a teachable moment and we need to make the most of capturing these, especially when children are young. Many children with ASD have amazing memories and understanding, especially when we appeal to their rule based, scientific nature. Show children picture books about the sun and explain about sun smart behaviour (eg. wearing protective clothing, hats and sunglasses and applying sunscreen) in a way that makes sense to them. Children most often want to help protect their body and be keep safe and would not enjoy the adverse consequences of being burnt that we are trying to prevent. Children who are really into numbers may find it fun to help chose the highest SPF rating sunscreen or rashie from the shop with you!

5. Childhood is meant to be fun so make mundane tasks like applying sunscreen into a game. Allow your child to apply sunscreen to you before you rush in and lather it all over them. Most kids also like to experiment with different ways of applying sunscreen and you may ask them to put yours on with dots or stripes before rubbing in it. When taking turns and then applying their sunscreen you could ask “Would you like me to make you a stripy tiger or a spotty giraffe?”. Try different methods of applying sunscreen, like buying a roll-on or spray sunscreen. (Note that the aerosol spray sunscreens are very cold when applied and do make a noise which may not be tolerated by many children with sensory issues). Giving children the freedom to apply their own sunscreen (and just checking they haven’t missed any vital patches!) can often also be more easily tolerated.

By employing the techniques above I hope you all have a safe and fun summer under the sun with lots of smiles and laughter.

Catherine Rosalion –
Autism specialist and director of ‘Autism Support’. Proud mother of 5 year old boy.

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