How to Manage Poor Hygiene in Children: “My Kid Stinks-Help!”

By

Teen boy with poor hygiene

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.”

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Investigate Why Your Child Refuses to Shower, Brush Teeth, Etc.

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.

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Rule Out Mental or Physical Health Problems

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.

Talk with Your Child About Hygiene

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.

Focus on What You Can Control

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

Let Your Child Face the Natural Consequences of Poor Hygiene

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

What To Do When Poor Hygiene is an Act of Defiance

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.

Be Patient When Addressing Poor Hygiene

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.

About

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.

Comments (24)
  • Sensory Overload & Hygiene
    Some kids crave and others avoid sensory input. Water, strong smells (deodorant), & strong tastes (mint toothpaste) can be too much for some children. It can help to offer bubblegum flavored toothpaste instead of mint, a bath instead of a shower, scent-free deodorant instead of scented. My 14 year oldMore hated brushing and I asked him why and he said the mint toothpaste was too strong. I got him bubblegum flavor and no problems now. He still resists showering, but I let him pick the time of day and allow 5 min as long as he uses soap & shampoo and passes the “sniff” test after showering. He will put on scented deodorant now, with lots of comments/hugs on how good he smells after putting it on. I f he flat out resists showering which sometimes happens still I let him know the consequence (WiFi router turned off) and what it takes to get it turned back on (take the shower).
  • Mom of dirty 16 yr old boy
    I have s 16 yr old son that will go very long periods of time of not showering and he has long hair past his shoulders and it’s so gross seeing that hair going so long not being washed I’ve just recently threatened to shave his head if he doesn’tMore shower soon is that a bit harsh
    • Joan
      No it’s not harsh I’d shave his head too don’t have long hair if you can’t keep it clean and healthy
  • Stressed Mom of a 6 year old
    Hi, I have a 6 year old daughter who I have been trying to teach to shower, she has a very strong body odor and I have tried helping her wash herself, I have tried different approaches and nothing works, she will stand in the shower for an hour ifMore I allow her and she will not scrub, wash her hair or anything. her dad tells me that is my job to show her and that I must be doing something wrong as a parent because she is not getting it. he doesn't agree that she has an odor and doesn't help with the discipline. My oldest is 21 and her boyfriend told her your little sister stinks. This is embarrassing. Help!!!
  • Patty
    These touchy feely suggestions DO NOT WORK. I'm sick of reading the same advice time and again. I need real world solutions to this problem. My 14 year old son gets in the shower but won't use soap or shampoo. I've tried all the hand holding techniques people have claimedMore are successful but to no avail. Good hygiene should not be a choice. I'm sick of hearing about power struggles and natural consequences. Give me something that works.
    • Di

      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.

  • CharuVerma
    Hi There a good article but at times we need to understand child psychology as my kid though 7 when he is too busy playing with friends either outdoor or indoor he prefers skipping bathing as compared to playing. Even when he doesn't feel well or too tired he doesn'tMore want to take shower. But I make sure that once in awhile it is OK and if he makes it a habit than probably I will refrain him from doing any of his favorite activities. Also if a child has a routine of doing all these hygiene things since early childhood there are less chances of him skipping the same.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
    Karenlb I understand your concern about your daughter, and her strong body odor even after showering.  At this point, it might be helpful to make an appointment with your daughter’s doctor to discuss this further.  Because her doctor has the ability to directly interact with your daughter, s/he would beMore able to assess what might be going on, and rule out any underlying factors which might be contributing to the smell you are noticing.  Thank you for reaching out, and I wish you and your daughter the best moving forward.  Take care.
  • SkeeterRomi
    I have a 19 with depression and refuses to take meds or bathe. She is oppositional defiant over non issues. We are trying to get her to fall in line but as I am not her biological mom and she is my significant other's child there I am very frustrated.More I am working on him right now and telling him I cannot live with her being as ass to me and standing her ground while reeking and disrespecting me. We have 2 other 22 yr olds in the house who work, (19 yr old has been looking for work.) They are not going to stand for her behavior either. I don't know what to do. I don't want to push her out because she has made some strides in turning things around but I won't be disrespected in my own household either.
  • Bamma
    My grandson has had 20 birthdays but acts more like 14.  He is currently staying with me short-term and we are having hygiene issues.  I don't understand why this is so difficult for him.  Would I be a horrible grandmother to simply make hygiene a condition of him staying here?
    • Darlene EP

      @Bamma 

      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.

  • PaulaGreyling1

    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 have a 6 year old grandson who refuses to take a bath or brush his teeth. He doesn't seem embarrassed at all when another child tells him he stinks or his breath stinks. It takes alot of prompting and even if I run the bath water for him he'llMore just stand in the bathroom. Something he'll splash water on himself and lie about taking a bath. My grandson has a psychiatrist. He's been evaluated. The only thing I was told based on his behavior and testing that he is very manipulative, defiant, and lazy. We've tried therapy, reward system, and point system. Unless he's getting what he wants he won't do what he's told. For example, if I was to not allow him to watch TV until he has taken his bath he wont it. He waits til I leave his room, cuts the TV down, and turns it back on. I ended up removing the TV from his room. He wasn't upset by it at all. He just moved on to something else. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      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.

  • Tracy_M
    I have a 14 year old son and he showers regularly and is pretty good about using deodorant. My issue is that he has the worst oral hygiene. He has braces which further complicates the issue. In this instance I really feel that waiting for the natural consequences (i.e. peersMore mentioning it or guidance counselor) is not realistic for this reason; who knows how long this could take and by that time the damage has already been done...irreversible damage. Also I think that many kids are too nice and don't want to hurt his feelings...they really can't be missing it...his breath is awful. There are serious health issues that can arise from his apathetic attitude. We do not have health or dental insurance so the possible cost of his choices are an additional worry.   He is too old for things like charts...we have tried everything and I am at my whits end! Body odor does not have a permanent consequence associated with it and I would much rather he choose this to be unconcerned about.  UGH!!!!!
  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

    airforcewon

    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.

  • christy34
    I also have trouble with my 12 yr old boy he has adhd and is also autistic and very defiant I cant get him to take a bath or brush his teeth it's harder to get him to brush his teeth though I even try to make a game outMore of it like he likes a certain song while brushing hid teeth when I can get him to brush them he learned the song in the 3Rd grade .anyway the song in the thbut lately that don't even work.he gets physically aggressive sometimes any suggestions on other things that might work to get him bak on track on his hygiene issues
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      christy34

      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.

      Take care.

  • Anonymous
    Yes, I'm not a parent but I am struggling with this problem of my younger brother everyday! My brother will be 12 on next March and he's not actually following my commands concerning his good hygiene! And yes I am taking care of my brother for 5 years. And IMore really don't know how to teach him until I found this site. I don't know why I haven't remembered about reinforcements and punishments since I am a psychology student. Thank you for this site. I know it will help a lot!
  • headescapeann

    DeniseR_ParentalSupport headescapeann

    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!

  • Cathyloveslife3
    Evening folks.  Ok.  So here it is.  I simply will not try to "convince" my 13 1/2 year old daughter to practice good hygiene anymore.  Plain and simple.  I am the mother, she is my daughter.  So I am seeing here that "consequences" seem to be the best alternative forMore my daughter and to keep my calm about this.  Both of my sons are very good at practicing good hygiene, hair washing etc, deodorant.  My youngest son is VERY motivated to take good care of his skin.  He developed cystic acne at the young age of 11 and he takes very good care of his skin and I took him to a dermatologist which motivated him even more.  Here it is with my daughter, she has some acne, but her hair....whew....her scalp is so oily as well, her face.  Here is her consequence, she adores drawing on the computer...ALL DAY if I let her. So, what I have decided is that she WILL NOT GET ON THE COMPUTER until her face is washed and teeth brushed in the morning.  Final.  We are the parents....our kids are not in charge.  Now when she is 18 and if she still lives with me...she will continue good hygiene...or guess what?  She will be an adult and she can live somewhere else. I will not live with a stinky, oily-headed person in my home.  This may sound harsh, but I have been a single parent for almost 20 years with my kids little "power struggles" with me.  I don't struggle with them anymore.  What I say goes as far as doing their chores, keeping good hygiene..basically being a family member.  I am in school full time and plan on being in school for a while longer and I work full time.  That is my choice as a parent...to be a parent.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    Atwitzend 
    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.

  • DS63

    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.

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      DS63 
      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.

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