It’s incredibly frustrating to deal with a child who refuses to take care of himself or herself—a child with bad hygiene. When our kids look bad and smell bad, we often see it as a reflection of our parenting. Indeed, a child’s poor hygiene is embarrassing to their parents.
We hear from many parents during parent coaching sessions whose kids won’t shower or brush their teeth—sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. It’s a common problem.
Maybe your child refuses to put on deodorant or wash their face. Perhaps they wear the same lived-in clothes every day and rarely brushes or shampoos their hair.
We say to ourselves: “I can’t let them leave the house looking like that!”
This is a normal response. But, it’s also normal for kids to go through phases during which hygiene can be challenging, particularly during puberty. Here’s what you can do if your child has poor hygiene.
Investigate why your child refuses to practice good hygiene. Typically, children refuse to shower, refuse to brush their teeth, and refuse to take care of themselves for a simple reason: they just don’t want to do it, and they don’t really care.
Many kids don’t want to spend their time on self-care activities. It’s often much more fun for them to spend time on things like playing video games. Kids can sometimes get so into a particular activity that it’s all they want to do. For a child, the choice between something fun and something that seems boring is an easy one. They will almost always choose what’s fun.
It’s also important to consider that puberty is a major transition for children. Their bodies suddenly need more care to remain clean. They need lots of time and practice to learn the new habits required to keep up with their changing bodies. It is a confusing time, and many children resist the change in routine. Understand that, in this case, resistance is simply due to a lack of knowledge and the need for time to adjust.
In other instances, though, bad hygiene is part of a larger, ongoing power struggle. Your child may be refusing to clean up to resist you and push your buttons. When this happens, the more you try to control your child, the more they resist.
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.
If your child has poor hygiene coupled with behavior changes, declining academic performance, trouble with peers, 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. You want to rule out a physical or mental health issue.
No matter what you think might be going on, we always recommend that you talk with your child and listen to their perspective. Understanding your child’s perspective is part of the key to working through this issue. Try sitting them 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?”
Then talk with your child about how they might solve this problem so that they can take care of themselves in a healthy way.
If your child is going through puberty, it’s helpful to talk about the changes going on with their 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, their pediatrician or school nurse should be able to give you some information and pointers.
By the way, I can’t state this strongly enough: be gentle and loving when handling delicate issues like hygiene. Your child will most likely be very sensitive and embarrassed about them.
Don’t try to physically force your child to bathe or brush their teeth. Don’t get them to shower by shaming them, calling them names, telling them that they smell, or telling them that you don’t want to be around them.
Ultimately, you can’t make another person do something they don’t want to do. It’s far more effective to focus on what will motivate your child and hold them accountable for practicing better hygiene.
Behavior charts and incentive systems are a great place to start, especially with younger kids. You can use a daily chart, such as our multiple behavior chart, to reinforce hygiene-related behaviors. Give a daily reward once the tasks are 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.
Related content: Free Downloadable Behavior Charts
Using a reward system has a built-in consequence, so it’s unnecessary to give an additional consequence for failing to shower. 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 them interested. Offering various rewards helps prevent the boredom and loss of motivation that often happens when the reward is always the same.
Related content: How to Create a List of Consequences and Rewards for Children
I always say to parents, “Never underestimate the value and power of natural consequences.” What’s a natural consequence of poor hygiene? The negative reaction of their peers to their body odor or greasy hair. Indeed, kids are very blunt, and many won’t hesitate to tell your child that their 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 stinks. And that ultimately solved the problem.
I’ve also known teachers to send kids to the guidance counselor to talk about hygiene. These are the natural consequences of your child’s poor hygiene. And they can go a long way toward getting your child to improve.
Do you want any of these embarrassing 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 as long as you are doing your job.
In the end, giving your kids the opportunity to practice good hygiene by providing all the necessary knowledge and tools is the best you can do.
Related content: The Benefits of Natural Consequences
Be aware that your child’s hygiene problem may be an act of defiance, in which case, the real issue is a power struggle. So how do you know if you’re in a power struggle with your child? If your child refuses to comply anytime you ask them to do something—when you find them continually pushing back against your rules and requests—you’re in a struggle.
The key to dealing with a power struggle is not to get sucked into it and to help your child develop more appropriate problem-solving skills.
For more information on dealing with power struggles, I recommend starting with James Lehman’s article Power Struggles: Are You at War with a Defiant Child.
Finally, be patient. Kids will always make their own choices no matter what. As long as you are problem-solving with your kids, using rewards and consequences, and supplying them with the necessary tools to take care of themselves, that’s the best you can do as a parent.
Parenting Teens: Parental Authority vs. Peer Pressure
Empowering Parents Podcast: Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former Empowering Parents Parent Coach with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.
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I'm with you girl. Have the same problem with step daughter won't shower brush teeth comb hair and she doesn't care. Her mom has to be able to tell with her odor from not showering prior at all when we pick her up. Mom says will talk to her give her what she likes for it still here she refuses. I'm sick of it the feetsmell body order I have to clean everything when she leaves. Blankets all whevr she sits. It's not right and just crazy. Tired of the bull but she won't do it here. Even tried nicely nicely long time w talk now tell her straight out you need a shower you don't smell good. No hope I think
I really don't want her here like this it's stupid and too much extra work not needed for us.
At 20 years old, while your
grandson may not act like a 20 year old, he is an adult. At this point, it is a
privilege not a right to be staying in your home. If hygiene a non-negotiable
for you, than you are well within your rights to make it a condition of him
staying with you. I think you have to ask yourself if you can live with having
to ask him to leave if he was not staying clean. And just remember, you are not
right or wrong either way. I know this is not easy to be dealing with. I hope
this helps. Thank you for reaching out.
I have a almost 14 year old son who has just recently started bording school. We are having issues with his personal hygiene. He showers but doesn't actually WASH with soap.
He is flippant when brushing teeth. Makes his bed really badly and leaves dirty washing lying around his dorm.
This was never allowed at home so I don't know why he is doing this. The problem is its causing issues for him with other boys as they are all getting into trouble for his dirty dorm.
Grandma of 11
I hear you. It can be very frustrating when your child
doesn’t want to take a bath or brush his teeth. Many parents and grandparents
have faced similar issues so you’re not alone. One thing that may be helpful is
using a behavior chart or an incentive plan. For example, you could set up a
chart that focuses on your grandson’s hygiene. Every time he brushes his teeth
and/or takes a bath, he would earn a check mark or sticker. Once he earns a
certain number of check marks, he would then earn a reward. You can check out
the article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/free-downloadables-child-behavior-charts-how-to-use-them-effectively/ for more
information on implementing an incentive plan for motivating your grandson to
have better hygiene. I hope you find this information useful. Be sure to check
back if you have any further questions. Take care.
This sounds like a very tough situation. It can be
frustrating, and more than a bit distressing, when your child struggles with
maintaining good hygiene. Unfortunately, we’re not able to address any issues
that directly involve toileting needs. We would recommend continuing to
work with her pediatrician or primary care provider about the problems your
daughter is having in regards to cleaning herself after using the bathroom.
As Sara points out in the above article, it’s important to figure out if
there are any underlying issues that could be having a detrimental effect on
your daughter’s ability to take proper care of her personal hygiene. You
mention that your children have only been in your home for a little over a
year. I know it seems as though a year should be long enough for you to see big
changes. However, past experiences may be playing a role in the behavior
you are now seeing. Is it possible she hadn’t had the opportunity to develop
good hygiene in past placements? It can be helpful to keep in mind the
importance of going to where your child is and coaching her forward. You
mention that you have seen improvement. Keep the focus on the improvement and
look at making small steps towards future improvement. This may mean allowing
her to earn rewards on a daily basis or making the weekly percentage needed for
earning a reward smaller, based on where she is currently performing. I
understand that the younger children are doing much better so it would make
sense that she would do better because she’s older. It’s quite possible that
just the opposite is true – her lack of proper hygiene has had a longer time to
become ingrained with her so it may take her longer to learn better hygiene.
You might consider finding a counselor in your area who specializes in working
with adopted families. The 211 Helpline would be able to give you information
on counselors and other resources for adoptive parents in your area. You can
reach the Helpline 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by visiting them
online at http://www.211.org/. You may also find it
helpful to check out our adoptive family blogs written by Regina Radomski. You
can find a list of those blogs here: Blog Posts by http://www.empoweringparents.com/blog/author/regina-radomski/. Good luck to you and your family moving forward. Take care.
I hear you. Hygiene issues can be quite frustrating. It
sounds like turning the task into a game or doing something to make it fun has
worked in the past. Is there another song or fun activity you could pair with
brushing his teeth to make it more appealing to him? It could also be
beneficial to check in with his treatment team about possible ways you could
motivate him to brush his teeth and do other activities of daily life. We
appreciate you writing in. Good luck to you and your family moving forward.
Thank you for you input! Over a year later, still no body odor. It's crazy. Hygiene has improved dramatically, though she will not shower unless I tell her to. Overall, it's a-ok! Thanks!
It can be very frustrating
when a child appears to have issues with maintaining basic hygiene, such as
showering, washing one’s hands, and using the toilet appropriately. I
also understand your concern about this behavior, as you are expecting another
child and do not want to needlessly expose a newborn to bacteria and
viruses. WeMore do not recommend using the techniques described on Empowering
Parents to address issues around toileting, as that can sometimes have the
unwanted effect of increasing the power struggles you are seeing.
Instead, we recommend checking in with your daughter’s doctor about this type
of behavior. In addition to having the ability to rule out any underlying
medical issues which may be contributing to this issue, s/he also has the
benefit of working directly with you and your daughter to develop an
individualized plan to address it. Thank you so much for writing in, and
I wish you and your family all the best moving forward; take care.
My step-daughter will be 15 in February. This is a complicated situation. She and her older brother live with her father and I. Unfortunately, her mother figure is very much in the picture and what I believe to be a big source of the problem. She gave her daughter bathsMore up until she was 8 years old, that we know of. Her dad was going to Iraq and told the mother to stop bathing her, that she was old enough to do it herself. We can't say for sure if it has continued or not. She won't take a shower or bath at our house. I have bought the shampoos and conditioners, the fun Bath and Body Works products, other products, razors, etc. and she doesn't use them. She has toothbrushes and tooth paste, and doesn't brush her teeth. When she comes back from the weekends at her mother figure you can tell she has taken a shower or bath. The other night, after 8 days of no bathing and her hair was so greasy that it honestly looked like it was soaking wet her brother said something. She did finally get in the shower and she did in fact bathe. This was very unusual because no matter who in our house says something to her, she doesn't do it. We tell her to go take a shower and she pulls the age old, go in turn the water on let it run, then come out with her hair up. She wants to be a cheerleader and we told her that part of that is going to be hygiene and that she needs to start bathing regularly. She doesn't. We had one of the cheerleaders on the squad who she knows and loves talk to her. Didn't work. We know that the mother figure plays head games with the kids, she always has and it got especially bad when I entered the picture and started dating their father. The kids both like me, and we get along fine. We struggle with homework being done and turned in, which again is another by-product of the mother figure since she never graduated and sees no point in school. The biggest issues we face or the lying and bathing with the daughter. I think that she needs to see a Psychologist or someone that can help, but I also don't believe she would talk to anyone and if her mother finds out she will just tell her to lie so it wouldn't do any good. I'm not sure what to do. She doesn't want to clean her room. I finally after months of telling her to clean up her room before she went to her mother figures or I would do it for her and she wouldn't like the outcome, I got tired of her ignoring me and lying to me about it. I went in her room, got several trash bags, and bagged everything up that was on the floor or stuffed under the bed or under the dresser or behind the dress, etc., etc. put it in the trash bags and out in the trash it went. I just do not know what to do. We've tried to talk to her, but she just puts her head down and won't talk or just shakes her head.
It can be difficult when you see a
child who is able to comply when at one parent’s house, and refuses at another
house, because you know that she has the skills to comply; she is simply
choosing not to. One thing to keep in mind is that it’s going to be most
helpfulMore to focus on what your stepdaughter is doing while she is in your home,
rather than what she might be doing while at her mother’s house, or things that
her mother might be saying. This is because you cannot control what your
stepdaughter does while she is staying with her mother, and ultimately, she is
responsible for her own behavior, regardless of who or what might be
influencing her. It’s also going to be important to focus on one behavior
at a time. If you are focusing on her completing her hygiene tasks, we
recommend stepping back from the issues with cleaning her room and
homework. What we frequently find is that if too many behaviors are being
addressed at once, it has the effect of overwhelming a child, and can lead to
feelings of hopelessness and giving up on changing anything. That being
said, as Sara mentions in the article, remember that many times, refusal to
shower or brush her teeth may be part of a larger ongoing power struggle with
your stepdaughter. Many times, the most effective thing to do when you
find yourself in a power struggle with a child is to focus on yourself and what
you can control, rather than trying to “make” her do something. The truth
is, you cannot force her to shower, brush her teeth, or complete other hygiene
tasks. You can, however, praise and recognize when she is completing
these tasks thoroughly and independently, such as by the use of short-term
incentives and daily rewards. It can also be useful to talk with her
about what makes it difficult to shower at your house, or how she can handle
this differently moving forward. In terms of seeing a psychologist or a
counselor, that can sometimes be helpful to learn new strategies and effective
skills. Even if your stepdaughter refuses to attend or participate, it could be
useful for you and your husband to go in order to learn more effective ways to
handle this situation. For assistance locating someone in your community,
try contacting the 211 Helpline at 1-800-273-6222 or by going to http://www.211.org. I understand
how frustrating this situation is for you, and I hope you will write back and
keep us updated as to how things are going. Take care.