OMG, Can’t You Smell That? When Teens Don’t Bathe…

when teens don't batheDear Mr. Dad: My 12-year-old daughter won’t shower, she won’t brush her teeth, and she wears the same clothes every day—and sometimes even sleeps in them. Honestly, she’s not very pleasant to be around. Is this normal? Either way, how can I motivate her to be a little cleaner?

This probably won’t help you feel any better—and it certainly won’t do anything about the smell emanating from your sweet daughter—but what you’re describing is very common among pre-teens. Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix.

There are a number of possible explanations. First, disregarding personal hygiene is sometimes a symptom of depression. Think about other areas of her life: Does she seem withdrawn socially? Have her friendships changed? Are her grades dropping? Have her diet or sleep patterns changed? If any of those are true, call her pediatrician. He or she will know whether to call in the mental heal professionals. Plus, a few words about showering from a non-family member might make a difference.

Second, she may be too busy—at least in her mind. From your perspective, she probably spends way too much time on her computer or her phone—time that might be better spent with a bar of soap. From her perspective, she’s just staying in touch with her friends.

Third, she may be trying to get your attention. Clearly, she has.

Fourth, this could be a power play. At 12, your daughter is relatively powerless. You may get her involved in family decisions and you may give her choices, but the final decisions are yours. Not bathing, brushing teeth, or wearing clean clothes might be your daughter’s way of exerting some control. The same dynamic is common among kids who are obese or who have eating disorders. Forcing a child to eat, stop eating, or get in the shower is nearly impossible. As a parent who’s been exactly where you are, I’d much rather be worrying about a hygiene problem than a potentially life-threatening eating disorder.

Here’s what you can do to help.

  • One common pre-teen and teen refrain is “you just don’t understand me!” There’s some truth there. Pre-teens have a lot going on in their head and we rarely ask about it. A few non-judgmental questions will show her that you care and might help you get to know her better.
  • Adolescence is a time when kids want to be liked and fit in. It’s also prime time for bullying and teasing. Nobody gets picked on, bullied, or socially excluded more than kids who are visibly or olifactorily different. Explaining to your daughter that she may be jeopardizing her social life might make a difference.
  • Do nothing. Actually being excluded or teased by her peers will get the point across more effectively than anything you say.
  • Have her read the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle story, “The Radish Cure.” The fictional Mrs. Piggle Wiggle comes up with delightfully creative solutions to parenting problems. In this story, she recommends to the parents of a child who refuses to bathe that they wait until their little darling is covered by half an inch of dirt, then, when she’s asleep, plant radish seeds. Seeing the sprouts was all it took to drive the child into the bath.
  • Don’t make threats. Threatening to take away her phone or Internet time may make the problem worse. If you absolutely must make a threat, be sure you can follow through. In a moment of frustration, I told one of my daughters that I wouldn’t take her to school the next day unless she showered and brushed her teeth. Dumb move on my part.

Sometimes Being a Teenager Just Stinks

Dear Mr. Dad: My son has changed completely over the last few months, from a sweet kid to surly and rude. He deliberately upsets our younger children, mouths off to his mother and me, and spends all his time in his room or out with his friends—most of whom are new. He’s dropped out of all the things he used to love, like soccer and orchestra, and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with personal hygiene. The other day my mom came to visit and asked me whether some animal had died in the house. I had to admit to that the smell was coming from my son. Is he on drugs and what should I do about it?

A: On one hand, a lot of what you’re describing is completely normal for teens—especially the smell issue and the rudeness. (Of course, just because something is normal doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.) On the other hand, behaviours like hanging out with a new group of friends and losing interest in activities he used to love are definitely red flags.

Let’s start with the easier stuff. Your first order of business is to sit down with your wife and come up with some ground rules for your son’s behavior—rules you both agree on and will stick to. Then, approach your son as a team. Remind him that although he may consider himself an adult, as long as he’s living in your home, you won’t tolerate bullying and he’ll need to treat people with respect. Don’t shout, don’t lose your temper, and keep the discussion short and to the point. Health and safety should be non-negotiable.

Next, talk about hygiene. Unfortunately, a lot of teens (girls as well as boys) go through a stage where they not only start smelling bad, but they also seemingly lose their sense of smell. And they’re genuinely surprised when someone points out that whenever they enter a room the paint peels, flowers wilt, and people pass out. Fortunately, most kids outgrow this stage within a few years. In the meantime, make sure your son’s bathroom is well stocked with soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and floss. Stay away from scented products and deodorants because they can be used to mask the underlying stench. If your son doesn’t get the hint, try requiring him to pass a sniff test before he’s allowed to leave the house. If all else fails, you may want to use the magic words: “You’ll never be able to get a girl to go out with you if you don’t start showering and brushing your teeth more often.”

Now, back to the drugs. There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for his behavior (such as that he’s a teenager), so tell him—openly and calmly—that you’re worried and ask him what’s going on. If you sense that he’s covering something up or you’ve noticed a lot of symptoms (which include a red or flushed face, slurred speech, using breath mints, sudden drop in grades, wild mood swings, excessive sleep, dramatic weight loss or gain, money and other valuables disappearing, and pupils that are huge and don’t react to changes in lighting), you’ll have to take a more aggressive approach—but don’t try to do it on your own.

Start by educating yourself by vising—they have a lot of great information on prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery. Then, talk to your son’s teachers, school administrators, and his pediatrician and ask them to help you help your son. The sooner you start, the better.