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Poor Hygiene in Children: "My Kid Stinks-Help!"

by Sara Bean, M.Ed.
Poor Hygiene in Children: My Kid Stinks-Help!

“My kid is such a pig! I can’t take it anymore!”
Every day we talk to parents on the Parental Support Line whose kids won’t shower or brush their teeth for days—or weeks—on end. Maybe your child refuses to put on deodorant or wash his face. Perhaps your daughter wears the same lived-in clothes every day and rarely brushes (or shampoos) her hair. If this sounds like your child or teen, you are not alone. It’s incredibly frustrating to deal with a kid who is refusing to take care of him or herself. And many parents feel very strongly that their child’s hygiene is a reflection on their parenting. They say, “I just can’t let her leave the house like that!” This is a natural response. It’s also normal for kids to go through phases during which keeping up with hygiene can be really challenging, particularly during the beginning of puberty. So what’s a parent to do? Read on for more information and ideas that will help.

“Sometimes refusal to maintain good hygiene is part of a larger, ongoing power struggle, one in which your child is not just unmotivated to shower and clean up, but is in fact motivated to resist you and push your buttons in general.”

Related links: Has your child’s refusal to bathe turned into a power struggle?

Is This a Normal Phase?

One of the most important things to consider about kids who have poor hygiene is that refusal to shower, bathe, or brush their teeth can sometimes be a symptom of depression, bipolar disorder, trauma or another mental health issue that will need to be addressed by local professionals. If your child has poor hygiene coupled with behavior changes, declining academic performance, trouble with peers, is functioning poorly overall, or if you just think your child’s poor hygiene is a health risk, we recommend that you make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to discuss what is going on and rule out a mental health issue. This article is intended to address children for whom mental health issues have been ruled out and they just plain refuse to take care of themselves or their rooms.

That said, with most typical children, refusal to bathe, brush their teeth comes down to this: they just don’t want to do it. Many, many kids are resistant to these self-care activities from time to time. It’s often much more fun for them to do something else, like play video games, for example. Kids can sometimes get so into a certain activity that it’s all they want to do. Look at it this way: if you’re faced with the choice of doing something you consider fun versus something that feels like a chore and is boring, which one are you going to choose? Most kids are going to choose what they consider most fun or entertaining.

Related: Unmotivated child? (Hint: Your child is motivated—to resist you.)

It’s also important to consider that for children who are going through puberty, which can start as early as 7 to 9 years of age, this is a major transition. Simply put, their bodies need more care than they have in the past in order to remain clean. Kids in this stage need to start bathing more regularly and wear deodorant to avoid body odor, for example. Transitions like this can be hard and your child might need lots of time and practice to learn the new habits that are required to keep up with their changing bodies. Unfortunately, at this age they can be resistant to the change in routine (and in your expectations) and it can be very confusing. Understand that in this case, resistance can be simply due to a lack of knowledge and a need for time to adjust.

That said, there are some cases in which refusal to maintain good hygiene is part of a larger, ongoing power struggle, one in which your child is not just unmotivated to shower and clean up, but is in fact motivated to resist you and push your buttons in general. If you get very upset with your child when he refuses to participate in hygiene-related activities, this is a sign that you’re in a huge power struggle with him. When this happens, the more you try to control your child and push him to do what you are asking, the more he is going to push back and refuse.

What can parents do?

If you’re in this situation with your child right now, what can you do to turn it around? Here are some steps you can take to tackle the issue head-on.

Talk with your child. No matter what you think might be going on, we always recommend that you also consider your child’s perspective—it might be very different than yours, and it’s part of the key to working through this issue. Try sitting her down at a relatively calm time and ask, “What’s the reason you don’t want to shower? What don’t you like about it?” James Lehman says kids act out because they have a problem they don’t know how to solve effectively, so the goal here is to identify what problem your child is trying to solve by not showering, bathing, or brushing her teeth. Discuss what’s going on and talk with your child about how she might solve this problem differently so that she can take care of herself in a healthy way. If your child is going through puberty it can be really helpful to talk to her about the changes going on with her body that make personal hygiene so important, such as skin becoming oilier and sweat glands becoming more active in the underarm area. If you aren’t sure how to have this conversation with your child, her pediatrician or school nurse should be able to give you some information and pointers.

Related: Does every conversation with your teen seem to escalate into a fight?

Be gentle and loving. It’s always important to be gentle and loving when handling delicate issues like hygiene. I can’t state this strongly enough—if your child is like most, he will be very sensitive and embarrassed to discuss this with you, so you need to come at it with empathy.

Focus on what you can control. We do not recommend that you try to physically force your child to bathe or brush his teeth, nor do we recommend trying to shame your child into showering by calling him names or telling him that he smells, that you don’t want to be around him, or that people won’t like him. Ultimately, you just can’t make another person do something they don’t want to do. It’s far more effective to focus on what you might set up to motivate your child and hold him accountable to practicing better hygiene. Behavior charts and incentive systems are a great place to start, especially with younger kids. You can use a daily chart (like our multiple behavior chart) to reinforce multiple hygiene-related behaviors, or you might just focus on one behavior alone, like showering, and give a daily reward once that one task is done. For older kids, you can also establish weekly rewards—for example, showering 5 out of 7 days might earn your child extra time at night before lights out.

Using a reward system has a built-in consequence, so it’s not necessary to give an additional consequence for failing to shower (or whatever the case may be) if your child does not earn their reward for the day or week. The loss of the reward is the consequence. You can create a menu of rewards your child can choose from to keep him interested. Offering a variety of different rewards helps to prevent the boredom and loss of motivation that often happens when the reward is always the same day after day.

Related: How to give consequences that really work.

Natural Consequences
In matters of children and hygiene, I always say to parents, “Never underestimate or undervalue the natural consequences.” Kids can be very blunt and many won’t hesitate to tell your child that her breath stinks. I talked to a mom once whose son didn’t shower as often as she would like, and his girlfriend would come right out and tell him he smelled bad—and that ultimately solved the problem. I’ve also known teachers to send kids to the guidance counselor to talk about hygiene. These are all natural consequences to your child not showering or brushing his or her teeth. Do you want any of these things to happen to your kid? Probably not. Is it a reflection on you as a parent? It certainly feels like it, but it really isn’t so long as you are doing your job. If you’re giving your kids the opportunity to practice good hygiene by providing all the necessary tools, and helping them by giving them the skills and knowledge they need, that’s usually the best you can do. And believe me, it’s a lot more powerful to hear someone outside of your family tell you that you stink, especially for a teen whose world revolves around peer relationships, than it is for your mom to tell you to take a shower. As hard as it is, sometimes you need to let kids experience the uncomfortable natural consequences which can help motivate them to change.

Here’s the bottom line: Kids will always make their own choices no matter what. As long as you are problem-solving with your kids, using rewards and consequences (to motivate them and hold them accountable), and supplying them with the necessary ‘tools’ to take care of themselves, that’s the best you can do as a parent.

Related: How to turn around your child’s behavior—and start enjoying peace in your home.


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Sara A. Bean, M.Ed. holds a Masters Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling from Florida Atlantic University. She is a Certified School Counselor and a proud aunt to a 5 year-old girl. She has been with Legacy Publishing since 2009 working on the Parental Support Line. Sara has over 5 years of experience working with youth and families in private homes, residential group homes, and schools.

READER'S COMMENTS

This article has so much of what i am going thru. My son refuses to take care of himself. I have been in counseling with him for about 3 years in all areas and nothing seems to help . I have 2 months and he will be 18 and he is out and he will not have finished high school but i am at the point where i do not care anymore.

Comment By : Barb

I have four kids under the age of 12 and all but one gives me a hard time when I tell them to take a shower. I'm just glad to hear it's common. Behavior charts here I come.

Comment By : cookies6

yes have to ask scream before he does anything like even comb his hair or wear matching socks or clean clothes after a bath or to sleep or getting up for school he drives me up the wall with his stink his room is the same way it stinks he is 11 yrs old and im forever pulling my hair for him to do anything

Comment By : angry mom

thanks for this issue on bathing, it really hits home, and I'm thankful for the helpful tips. I have tried the same things you have stated, and I guess it's partly some of my fault, because at times she wants to and I tell her no, because I feel she could wait, but if I just let her shower or bathe when she wants to then it will be ok, because at times when I ask her to she doesn't want to and it's - why do I have to be clean all the time? But when she wants to- I say- not today or right now, but you can do it later, instead of saying go ahead because she wants to at that time. Thanks again for these notes of encouragement.

Comment By : sukari

With the younger kids, new bath toys are a great incentive. A really cool boat, bath crayons. For a girl, new bath products that she goes to pick out with you at bed, bath, and beyond!. New sponges, etc. Make the bath time fun when they're young.

Comment By : kelly

I am almost always reminding our son to keep himself clean, he seems to think spraying himself with cologne is the answer! As for washing his face and brushing his teeth thats an entirely different scenerio.What ever happened to taking pride in ones self?

Comment By : Lisa

We had the bathing issue with my son when he was around 10. We handled it with humor. The Destiny's Child song 'Loose my Breath" was popular at the time, and we changed the words and jokingly sang around him... "Can you clean up, stinky boy? Make me hold my breath, stinky boy. Need to use some zest, stinky boy." But I think what really helped was buying a gift set of Axe products. I didn't give the gift set to him, just placed it in the bathroom. When he saw it, he came running to me, asking who was it for. I told him that it was for him. I think this worked better than giving him the box, rather making him want it. With cool names like Snake Peel, Phoenix, and Cool Metal, what pre-teen boy can resist? He went right to the shower and was actually singing! True story! And after his shower, instead of leaving the products in the shower, he took the products to his room to make sure his dad didn't use them up. True and funny story, and worked like a charm.

Comment By : Amber

My litte guy Is 11. We have 2 set days for bathing. Sunday and Thursday. Those 2 days are not negotiable. Days in between are as needed. I find that he ends up making good choices on his own with this system.

Comment By : nicki

I have had this problem with my teenaged son. Our solution was his favorite Axe body wash. We even found a generic at a dollar store that he liked. Teens want to smell good and if it feels like a thearpuetic experience like it is for us, they will do it. When we asked him if we can do anything to help him want to shower, he said that he didn't want soap that smelled like a girl. He just needed something that made him feel like a guy and not a little kid. He isn't perfect about it, but it definitely helped. He also said that it feels like less of a chore.

Comment By : Donita

I hear you Barb I have 2 yrs to go. The stench of his room comes into the rest of the house it could make you throw up. We have tried all the suggestions and no go. He used to take 2 bathes a day then he stopped. I wish the school would complain.

Comment By : Suzanne

I had exhausted myself with the encouragements, charts, motivational little ploys all while trying to smile and conceal the loathing and disgust that I felt inside. Finally I let it go completely and resigned myself to it and stopped giving any of the secretly sought attention that she wanted. In one week,Nature took its course. Most "friends" ostracized my daughter completely at school and when a boy that she had secretly liked made a remark about her filth, something sunk in and she gradually (sheepishly) realized that she needed to come around to what I had been teaching her all her life. By then, of course, I've pulled away- for my own sanity- but I do emphasize that volumes spoken by parents seldom are equivalent to one syllable spoken by peers( or even strangers, in the case of hygiene). Parents know this. In this case, if it is a bid for negative attention, let them take the abuse from strangers in line or on the bus or whoeveris unfortunate enough to stand downwind from their squalor. Once I recognized that it was my daughter's problem, self-created and within only her control to fix and that I would still walk out of the house proud of my own personal cleanliness, I was able to distance my self more and more gradually away from her. Keep a little bit of a cool,distinterested distance but definitely let them sense your distaste( my fualt for not doingg that earlier and in continuing to serve her food at the table, do her laundry, etc.) Remember the old saying: "you can't lay down with pigs and get up smelling like roses"? We don't have to abide this we can distance ourselves from it and make them own their own messes. After all, they want to be "independent" don't they? PS I learned that it is no reflection on me because I always kept my standards high, so others know it all my daughter's problem. Good luck but put yourself first and emphasize the positive of the good things you have modeled for your child and if they choose the negative, that is their life.

Comment By : Glork

I have a 14 year old daughter who thank God has very good hygiene. I also have two boys,10 and 7, what I find works is giving them positive attention when they are clean and smelling good. I sniff them, hug them, and tell them they smell delicious enough to eat up with kisses. They love all the attention mommy gives them and feel so loved. At that time I take the opportunity to let them know smelling good is socially desirable. That people appreciate this. When you have a girlfriend, friends,ect they are gonna love to be near you because you smell so good. I did this to my daughter when she was little aswell. Both my sons have ADHD & ODD. So, I also motivate them with behavior charts (mostly for other behaviors) but what I find works best is the hugs and kisses they get from me every time they bathe (daily, yes, daily). They like it so much they run up to me so I can inspect them. I suppose this won't go on for long with my 10 year old. At around this age my daughter started developing and wasn't confortable with all the attention but atleast she had already developed good hygiene habits. I still pass by and sniff her hair every once and a while. I remind her how I loved how she smelled when she was little and still do. I know its hard to be positive when a child resists you (remember my 2 sons have ADHD & Oppositional Defiant Disorder)but know in the end they just want to be loved and want to feel your approval. If we catch ourselves when they are smaller it's best. As teens it's harder but not impossible. Yes, I said ourselves, we are the adults. We have to make a conscious effort no matter how angry we get with them to let them know we still love them. Our kids need to know this. No matter what, We still love them. Not just by words but we need to reflect it in our tone, in our faces, and in our actions. God Bless us and give us the Wisdom and Love we need as parents and children that we are.

Comment By : Sol1972

My daughter is about to turn 14 and I have been struggling with this issue with for quiet some time now. I have had her classmates at school call her out on this. However she is still carrying around an awful body odor. I have been consistent in my approaches which match the recommendations in this article. It is no longer a power struggle. The problem I currently have with her is getting her to talk about it when I try to talk to her about it. She shuts down and refuses to talk about it. Her response is usually "I don't know" or "Okay mom." Any further suggestions will be taken gratefully. Thank you for the educational and useful article.

Comment By : Mara V.

My son refused to take showers over a time period of 3 to 4 days often because he was too busy to let go of his computer games and he started to stink really bad buying him AXE products and Nivea cool for men really helped and buying his own deodorant just for him having clean towels right from the dryer works too, and he now showers more frequently.

Comment By : momofa13yearoldboy

Most shoes now days are made of synthetic plastics that don't breathe like leather. Get new shoes and "SmartWool" brand socks. These socks are great for preventing foot odor!

Comment By : Lisa

* Hi Mara. It sounds like this really has been a struggle for you, and emotional one at that. One strategy you might use to open up a conversation with your daughter about her hygiene is what James Lehman calls strategic recognition and affection. Basically, what you do is start the conversation with a compliment—talk first about something your daughter has done well or improved upon lately. It doesn’t need to be hygiene related. Once you give her a compliment, use the word “and” (not “but”) to transition into the body odor issue. So you might say, “I wanted to let you know that I’m really proud of you for doing so well on your math test, you are so smart! And, I’d also like to follow up with you about how you’re taking care of yourself...” Try to voice your concerns in a non-judgmental way that focuses on teaching her about her changing body. Ask your daughter what she can do differently in her daily routine to improve her hygiene a little bit—just one specific thing. If she’s not giving you an answer, make some suggestions and ask her to choose one. If she won’t choose, you might give her some more time to think about it and come back to the conversation in a half an hour or so. This is a really tough issue and I hope you see some more positive changes soon. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I give this article a 5.

Comment By : gillian

I started using the Total transformation programme for my 16 year old son, who was out of control only a couple of months ago and because of my desperation and determination to make it work my son is 80% healed. And guess what? My two daughters 20 & 11 years old are benefiting from the programme too because I am making the 'consequences system' work for us. Thanks to you I now have the control that I always claimed to have in the past. I shall continue to embrace your method, which is what my parents used in the 1960's with me and my 3 siblings and have been totally successful. May God bless you and I feel one day I shall meet you one day, even though I live in the tropics, Trinidad & Tobago, West Indies. Thank you sooooooo much.

Comment By : gillian

My son will be 20 in January refuses to wash his teeth or shower or even wear clean washed clothes that I supply, he sleeps in a room down stairs and the stink and stench from his room actually turns my stomach, i have even bought an industrial air freshener to spray every 30 seconds but I can still smell him, after a week of no washing I finally made him shower, he got back into the dirty smelly clothes. I have brought him to therapy but he wont engage, I recently had another baby 3 days ago and the baby nurse was calling I was so embarrassed by the smell. I tried to challenge him to clean but he got very aggressive and called me names his step dad asked him to stop and he went for my husband, even though he knew the baby nurse was due to the door at any min. Please advise me on what to do, he wont move out as says he cant afford to live alone

Comment By : sandy

* To “sandy”: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. It can be extremely embarrassing when your child has poor hygiene. When you’re in that situation, it can be difficult not to feel this is a reflection on you and your parenting. Ultimately, you can’t make your son have better hygiene. Instead, we would suggest focusing on what you do have control over, namely, how you respond to the choices he makes. You might consider setting up a living agreement with your son that outlines what the expectations around living with you in your home are. For example, perhaps you link his attending therapy or accessing other supports to him being allowed to stay in your home. As a parent, it’s not your responsibility to continue to provide for him, especially if he doesn’t make any attempt to meet the rules and expectations of your house. One other thing to consider is what the best course of action will be if your son continues make threats or go after your husband or other family members. You might find these articles on adult children useful: Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I, Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II: In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home and Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement?. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to address this challenging behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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