Jenni Groft recalls the first time she found her 3-year-old daughter frantically combing her blond curls with a fine-toothed comb. Over the next few months, she often found the comb in her daughter's room.
"I realized that what Tessa was trying to do was straighten it," says the Phoenix mom. "It made me feel so sad."
Growing up in a family with five straight-haired siblings and a straight-haired mother, little Tessa longed for straight hair.
"I told her 'Honey, this isn't going to make your hair straight. You have beautiful curly hair, and that is the way it will always be. She burst into even more heart-rending tears and screamed 'No! No!' She would have none of it. Her heart was broken and she was still crying when I left the room. She's only three!"
The seeds of curly angst are sown early. They can come from the prevalent images of straight-haired princesses in fairy tales and from popular culture, where straight-haired celebrities abound. Curly kids may look with envy at their straight-haired friends. And they may react negatively to all the attention they get because of their curls -- even if that attention is positive.
"Normally, developmentally, there is a phase in which children feel self-conscious," says clinical psychologist Mary Lamia, host of Kid Talk with Dr. Mary on Radio Disney. "What they do with those feelings is find a target to account for them. Hair is a big target. Not being able to control one's hair is a metaphor for not being able to control one's feelings."
Experts say there are some steps parents can take to help promote a more positive attitude toward those curls and kinks that may prevent years - even decades - of frustration.
"No. 1, it starts with Mom," says curl stylist Lorraine Massey, author of "Curly Girl" and a partner in the Devachan salons in Soho. "I see a lot of moms with blow-fried hair. If she's in denial, she'll have a child in denial."
You have to know how to speak to your kids about their hair, says Ouidad, who has clients in their 30s who have been coming to her since they were children.
"I see mothers come in exasperated, throwing their hands up in the air and asking what to do with their child's hair," Ouidad says. "You see this gorgeous little child deflate in front of you."
For that reason, Ouidad often asks parents to go to the waiting room so she can work with the children alone.
"First and foremost, always tell your angel how beautiful her curly hair is," says Mahisha Dellinger, creator of the Curly Q line of products for kids.
It is a subject near and dear to Dellinger's heart since her own curly-haired daughter, who is biracial, went to a school where most of the other girls were Caucasian with straight hair.
"For those moms with straight hair, tell your daughter that you wish your hair was curly, even if that means you have to tell a white lie," Dellinger said. "Remember that moms have a major influence on their girl's self esteem."
Let them know their feelings are normal, Lamia says.
"When the issue comes up, I focus on the fact that it's not really about their hair," she says. "Everybody is self conscious about something. But most people hide what they feel self-conscious about."
Education can be the key to curl love. And the earlier the better.
"Over the years, I've come to realize that so many parents of children with curly hair have struggled to learn how to deal with their own hair," says Ilona Reece, who created her Taria Curlz instructional video to teach parents how to wash, condition, comb (painlessly) and style all types of curls. It even provides guidance on how to get them to sit still while they're getting their hair done.
"My main goal is to help parents teach their children how to work with their hair, and to let children know how beautiful their hair is," Reece says. "It shouldn't be viewed as a problem."
Massey plans to start Saturday schools to teach children how to work with their curls. Ouidad regularly hosts educational seminars for parents and daughters. The parents listen, while the children learn how to shampoo, detangle and style their own hair. Her 14-year-old curly daughter helps her with some of the classes, providing a positive role model.
"I arm them with knowledge," Ouidad says. "I empower them. I have a 4-year-old who can do her own hair. It's incredible."
Proper care is important. Massey says she sees children come into her salon with huge, unsightly knots in the back of their head. It further fuels any negative feelings they have about their hair.
These days, there are a number of products especially for curly kids that can help detangle and style their hair. Make sure the entire head is conditioned, especially the nape of the neck where loose head tends to form knots.
"Don't ignore it," Massey says. "At the first sign of a knot, work through it with a comb, putting a little conditioner on the comb."
Many kids with curls feel as if their curly hair controls them. One of the most important things you can do is to let children know they have options when it comes to their hair. Let them see the variety of styles they can wear—from ponytails to braids, from curly to straight.
"Tell her how lucky she is to have hair that she can wear curly or straight," Dellinger says.
For curly girls who want long, stick-straight hair, Massey recommends buying them a straight-haired wig.
"Let her get it out of her system," Massey says.
Many moms of curly kids also recommend finding photos of beautiful girls and women with curls, as well as curly-haired dolls. Buy them hair products especially for curly kids so they feel special.
Groft found a good way to help her daughter Tessa. She got a perm. "I wanted her to feel less alone," Groft says. "She hasn't been fighting it as much anymore. Now we do our hair together and use the same products."
Kelly Foreman, who created the Mop Top and Fuzzy Duck lines of curl products, has had the opposite problem. Because of her emphasis on curls with her business -- and the attention her curly middle daughter gets for her blonde ringlets -- her oldest daughter feels less confident about her straight hair.
"I try to focus on the way that my girls are is the way that God made them -- beautiful from the inside out," Foreman says. "I keep the message simple, clear and consistent."