From the April 2019 issue

Give Up the Funk: When Tweens Refuse to Shower

Underarm funk like you're head-locking a skunk? When tweens refuse to shower and hygiene comes too close to this Black-Eyed Peas lyric, it's time to talk.

A stinky pirate monster conquers a spiderweb covered tub
Illustration by Brent Mossner

Puberty stinks – in more ways than one. Some kids don’t get the memo that their changing bodies come with new smells. And, even if they are aware, it may be difficult to convince them to change their shower habits.

Child psychologist Stephanie Wright of the Ted Lindsay Foundation HOPE Center in Southfield has some tips on how to get your kids to come clean – especially when tweens refuse to shower or simply dodge the issue.

The ele-funk in the room

You may be wondering why you even need to have a conversation – let alone argue with your child – about shower habits. Come on. Can’t they smell what they’re cooking? But even if they’re painfully aware, they may not want to discuss their changing bodies. That’s why it’s up to parents to open the dialogue.

First, simply find out why your tween won’t shower, suggests mom blog Totally the Bomb. “Maybe they feel awkward about their bodies,” it says. “Start a dialogue with your kid. If there’s something going on, they might not just come to you and say it. You’re going to have to ask some questions.”

When you do approach your kid, make sure you do so gently and without embarrassing him or her. Wright suggests starting with the broad topic of puberty and how their bodies are changing. Make the conversation educational, not corrective – and help them relate to you by modeling proper hygiene yourself.

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Also, share resources that are encouraging vs. graphic depictions of what could happen if they don’t follow your advice.

“Don’t use fear-based information,” Wright says. “It’s really far removed and not directly correlated with their experiences. It will only confuse them more.”

Most importantly, Wright says to not frame the situation as something they are doing wrong. Explain what could happen – including potential social ostracism – without shaming them. “Shame is a very hard thing to come back from.”

Bored – or something more?

“A lot of kids just think (showering is) boring – it’s something someone’s telling them to do,” Wright says. “It’s just a non-preferred activity, and sometimes kids don’t see the importance of being clean.”

However, she adds, “sometimes a lack of hygiene can be a sign of mental illness. Depression can sometimes cause a lack of initiation and motivation. There’s a difference between defiant behavior and a lack of caring.”

Defiant kids are sneaky. For instance, they might stand in the shower but not use soap or claim to be heading to the shower but not bring a towel. In these situations, parents can easily catch the behaviors and correct them with verbal reminders.

Tweens with depression, anxiety and sensory disorders, however, may react very negatively to showers, and will typically have changes in other behaviors, too.

To get to the root of the issue, Wright suggests looking for additional clues, such as increasing or decreasing the amount they sleep and eat or isolating themselves.

“My view is if it’s getting in the way of life or their typical activities, then it’s because of an issue,” she says. “If there’s a shift in behavior, then you may want to seek someone to help.”

From funky to fresh

Beyond talking to your tween about his or her hygiene, there are ways to help kids actually enjoy the act of bathing.

Totally The Bomb suggests allowing kids to choose their own supplies. When you go shopping, let them pick out a shampoo and body wash, for example. Wright agrees that this helps. “If they’re part of the process, they feel more in control. The more in control they feel, the more excited they get.”

Wright suggests that some kids may have an issue with the process of showering, and you can help them by breaking down the sequence.

“You can help create a schedule or reinforce a system to add a motivational piece to something they are not internally motivated to do,” she says.

For instance, bring a waterproof speaker in and let them time their shower to their favorite songs.

If you have tweens, chances are you’re going to live through some awkward conversations. Addressing their stench may not be easy, but it will help you all breathe easier.

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