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.
“Bad hygiene is sometimes part of a larger, ongoing power struggle—a power struggle in which your child doesn’t shower and clean up in order to resist you and push your buttons.”
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.
Related content: Parenting Teens: Parental Authority vs. Peer Pressure
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.