Aug 21

"I Don't Wanna!": Overcoming face painting fear

face painting little children melbourne

Tonight I have the pleasure of teaching another fun class at Laneway Learning Melbourne. This time it’s all about face painting, exploring some basic techniques with a group of lovely beginners. I’m pumped for an action-packed practical class, but with only a little over an hour to play with there won’t be much time to go over how to handle some of the tricky situations that can arise when you’re working with lots of children.

There’s one situation in particular that EVERY aspiring face painter, and EVERY parent with a young child should think about long and hard. The issue: How to handle a child who just doesn’t want to be face painted.

Every professional face painter has seen it a thousand times. There’s a long line at the event. You ask “Who’s next?” and along comes a parent holding a tiny tot, usually under the age of three, who looks terrified. Tears are welling up in the little one’s eyes and she’s very wary of this colourful new stranger. The parent asks for an elaborate design on the child’s face and tries to put the child in the chair, and then the tears turn into a full-blown screaming fit of terror. More often than you think, the parent will try to pin the child down, gripping her head tightly so that the child can’t move and says “Quick! Go for it!!!”

Let’s stop right there and take a deep breath. There are a few motives going on here that are at loggerheads with one another. First you have the parent, who has been waiting in line for ages. They want their kid to look gorgeous, and they really don’t want all that time spent in line to end up as a total waste. Second, you have the face painter, who would also love to paint something beautiful for the child and get the line moving, but ultimately they just want the child to walk away happy. Finally you have the child, who just wants to get away from this scary situation and feel safe again.

If everyone in this situation is pushing their own agenda, nobody is going to walk away happy. It’s a really delicate line to walk when handling the situation, as emotions are running high. There are many ways to approach this issue so that the child (and the parents) can walk away feeling good about the encounter.

Many face painters have a flat rule: no children under the age of three. That’s a very clear-cut way to prevent a blowout like this, and is a perfectly valid solution when you’re at a busy event and in a hurry. I am personally fine painting a child under three, as long as the child is willing and I have the time to get the experience right. Every artist is at a different point on the spectrum, so do what you feel most comfortable with.

Here are a few strategies to make the experience as lovely as possible for the little tots:

1. As the parents and child approach, read the child’s body language.

If they are clinging to their mum with their face buried deep into her neck, then chances are this little monkey is not looking forward to having his or her face painted. There is a big difference between a mildly wary child and a distressed child – you need to be able to recognise that difference quickly.

2. Turn your energy down a few notches.

Having a brightly coloured noisy stranger in your face is pretty scary for a little kid! Keep your voice calm and bring yourself down to the child’s level. Keep your distance to begin with so that the child can get used to the situation.

3. Ask the parents how old the child is.

Make them aware that children under three can be quite overwhelmed by face painting, as they see a stranger approaching poking something pointy towards their face. Try to manage their expectations – be realistic that it won’t be an incredible work of art, but you will do your best to make it a lovely experience for their little one of he or she is willing.

4. Work in a way that gives the child the best chance of staying calm.

No matter whether you work with a high chair, step ladder, standing or sitting, you may have to adjust your style for an anxious child. Perhaps allow them to be cuddled by mum or dad while you paint.

5. Offer to paint the child’s hand first so that they can see what you are doing, and understand that it doesn’t hurt.

If the child won’t offer his or her hand, ask them which bit you are allowed to paint. Their thumb? Their foot? Their leg? If the answer is no each time, ask mummy or daddy if you can paint something onto them first.

6. If the child still won’t offer up a hand to be painted they are clearly not comfortable with the idea.

Just politely apologise to the parents and say that you would love to paint their little one when he or she is a little bit older. Better luck next time! If a parent goes so far as to try to restrain or force their child, firmly state that it is unsafe to paint a distressed child and you are unable to do it. They may get a little upset, especially if they waited in line for a while, but you must draw a line for the child’s sake.

7. If the child is OK with a little paint on their hand…

…ask them if it’s OK for you to put another pretty painting on their face. If they give you the all clear, it’s time to paint… FAST!

8. Keep the design small, super fast, and with very little detail.

Avoid the immediate eye area, and if the child is a bit of a distracted wriggler localise the design to the cheek to avoid any accidents. Little flowers and one-stroke rainbows are absolutely perfect. The quicker the better, as little ones will want to touch the design because it’s a new sensation for them. More often than not they will smudge it everywhere before it dries, and that’s fine. At least you made it a pleasant experience.

9. As always, let them enjoy seeing themselves in the mirror.

Tiny tots love this bit even more than older children! It’s their reward for being so well behaved, so make sure you reinforce how brave they are.

I know that when the lines are long and you need to work quickly, it’s really hard to slow yourself down and take the time to go through this process. The bottom line is – it’s part of the job. And if you check in with the child every step of the way, it will turn a really unpleasant part of the job into something that you can really feel good about. Being the reason that a child’s first face painting experience is a really lovely one is something to really be proud of!

Do you have any ideas to add? I’d love to hear from you! Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

(aka “Sue-Dee” of Sue-Dee’s Face Painting Melbourne)

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