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

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 Think about other areas of her life: Does she seem withdrawn socially?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.

Hey, I Don’t Like Doing Chores Either

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 12-year-old refuses to do any chores. Anytime we ask him to help around the house, he always finds an excuse not to. Sometimes he even says he doesn’t feel like cleaning up after himself. My husband says we should ground him. What’s your take on this?

A: I’ll confess right here that the phrase “I don’t feel like it” coming from a child absolutely infuriates me. My initial reaction has always been something like, “Okay, no problem. But I don’t feel like doing your laundry or driving you to your friend’s birthday party this weekend or preparing your meals or buying you that new game you want. ”

The harsh reality for your son (and every other child out there) is that very few people are passionate about housework: we do it because we like living in a clean, comfortable environment. Like it or not, your son is part of a family and family members all chip in to do what needs to be done to keep the household moving smoothly. The adults have their responsibilities and the kids have theirs (what, exactly, that means will depend on age and ability).

In addition to making good sense, chores, say the experts, are excellent for children because they help them develop some valuable skills and habits, including responsibility, helpfulness, appreciation for hard work, and the satisfaction that comes from making a positive impact on the lives of others.

At the very least, your 12-year-old should be expected to make his bed, keep his room tidy, and clean up after himself. If you have pets, he should take part in caring for them. And there’s no reason he can’t help you bring groceries in from the car, set the table for meals, and load/unload the dishwasher.

I’m sure your son isn’t refusing to help out just because he’s lazy or mean. Is it possible that he doesn’t actually know what his duties are? Are his chores fair and age-appropriate? Have you given him so many responsibilities that he no longer has time for a social life?

The first thing to do is have a talk with your son. Explain to him that everyone in your family pitches in and plays a role in creating a home that runs smoothly. That’s non-negotiable.

Next, have him help you put together a list of all the chores that need to be done on a daily/weekly/monthly basis and roughly how long each one should take. Then let him swap some of the chores he hates for ones that take the same amount of time but that he’ll hate a little less. He won’t admit it anytime soon, but he’ll really appreciate the confidence you’re showing in him by giving him some say in all this. Plus, having made the choices himself, it’ll be harder to gripe about them later on.

One more thing: avoid the urge to micro-manage his tasks or criticize his technique. For example, his dusting may not pass the white-glove inspection, but as long as he puts a genuine effort into it, don’t point out everything he missed. At least not in the moment. On the contrary, if he lives up to his responsibilities, praise him and thank him for his help. We all—adults and kids alike—want to feel needed and appreciated.

Finally, if he still refuses to do his fair share, go on strike. When he runs out of clean underwear or has to figure out how to take public transportation to meet up with his friends, he’ll have a sudden—and profound—change of heart.