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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.