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

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“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, bath, 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 bath, 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.

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