Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.I’m going to just be blunt. My kid smells! He’s 10 and I cannot interest him in hygiene. Getting him to brush his teeth is a battle. I tell him to take a shower and he acts like I cut off his arm. I know it’s not just him because when his buddies are over it smells like a locker room. Any ideas? Thanks.

– Mom of smelly kid

Mary Jo’s response: In nearly 45 years of supporting parents and advocating for young people, parental complaints about hygiene and tweens – young people 10 to 13 years old – are common.

My thoughts on this sensitive topic stem from a deep respect for young people; there are ways to finesse wanted behavior without denying a young person’s need for autonomy. Too often adults build a wall between themselves and young people, starting small, with a few bricks, and gathering width and height as tweens become teens. Compromise, rooted in respect, can connect parental desires and tween needs for independence.

Here are some hints:

  • Tweens and teens have their own culture. Think of each encounter with a young person as a cross-cultural experience, much like visiting another country. Your first step is to respect the culture. Build requests for behavior – in this case, better hygiene, on mutual respect.
  • Listen to young people’s perspectives. Try to see life through their lens. When we listen to young people, no devices should distract us. We are 100% focused on the young person. Many adults complain about their young people’s phone use, but I find myself just as guilty of phone obsession. Step away from the device when you communicate and model this behavior.
  • Involve young people in decision-making. A shopping trip where hygiene products are purchased can be a fun outing that allows for choices in brands, types of products, and scents.
  • Honor choices within reason. Discuss costs if necessary, explain rationale for certain products, ask the young person’s opinion. Compromise. Say, “Your body is changing – I know you’ve noticed. As your body grows to be an adult body, you’ll need to care for it in a different way. I’d like you to pick the types of products you’ll use to stay clean and fresh. I use these kinds of products, but I’m not you. What do you think?”
  • Parents should remember respecting a young person means using a tone of voice the parent would use to a co-worker or an adult friend. If you wouldn’t walk into a co-worker or employee’s office and scream, “Look at this space! What’s wrong with you? Get this cleaned up immediately!” – then you should remember the music behind your words when you talk about a young person’s room or personal space.
  • Discuss family responsibility. Shared space in a bathroom, privacy, and personal boundaries are all important discussion items connected to hygiene. Weave in the necessary topics.
  • Finally, if resistance is high, try creating an agreement or contract between you and your young person. Discuss openly; listen to hear. Be serious but accepting. I believe in positive reinforcement, so establishing guidelines for behavior with the possibility of a reward is my first choice. You may prefer to set consequences for negative behavior prior to signing anything.

The above methods can be used to set limits on phone/computer use, time with friends, texting, or homework expectations. The key is respecting the need for independence. It’s tough to remove the bricks on a wall once they are built.

Someday your tween will be a adult. I hope your adult child will be a good friend. Right now, your parental role isn’t friendship, but building a foundation of respect can ease connection.

Peer Educator response

Hygiene gets better. Try to encourage positive behavior without shaming your son. Eventually his peers and he will be extremely clean. He’ll get there. We hope this is your worst problem raising him!

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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