As stay-at-home orders return and each day seems to blend into the next, I’m hearing from colleagues and readers alike that their older kids are resisting shower time. While the littler ones can get by with a full bath once or twice a week, unless they’ve decided to make mud pies, the older ones get … let’s say, fragrant. If you’re nestled up beside them doing online learning, that makes for a distinctly unpleasant familial experience.
It’s not unusual for children this age to resist bathing, even when there’s not a pandemic going on. Tweens have control over their own bodies, said Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, a pediatrician and a researcher in the pediatrics department at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, and not showering may be a way to assert their independence. “Just like you can’t force a 3-year-old to eat all the peas on their plate, you can’t force a 9- or 10-year-old to shower,” she said.
Indeed, I recall that during my first year of sleep-away camp when I was in late elementary school, an entire bunk of boys my age refused to bathe for our entire four-week stay, and they were extremely pleased with themselves. “It’s not new with the pandemic, but it is exaggerated,” said Tori Cordiano, a clinical psychologist in private practice based in Ohio who specializes in children and adolescents.
That’s because kids are out of their normal routines, and if they’re doing remote school, they’re not getting feedback from their peers. “The first time a friend says to them, ‘You have B.O.’ or ‘Your hair looks terrible,’ that would be the feedback to get them to change their ways,” said Dr. Elizabeth M. Alderman, chief of the division of adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York. “Because of Covid, they don’t really have that.” Body odor is the first sign of puberty in about 20 percent of children, Dr. Alderman said, and typically happens earlier for girls than it does for boys.
Tweens and teens may also feel like showering is “the one thing in a totally chaotic, messed up year I can control,” Dr. Heard-Garris said. While we can all be sympathetic to the desire to regain some semblance of power, we also have to live with these smelly little creatures. So here are some ways to encourage your shower-resistant kid to bathe.
Ask them why. The first step is to have a conversation with your kid about why they don’t want to shower. Do not have this conversation at 8:30 p.m., when you’re nagging them to wash up before bed, Dr. Cordiano said. You want to have the chat when things are calmer and the stakes feel a little lower. “Enter with curiosity,” she said, “If we can enter into it neutrally, and take it in nonjudgmentally, and reach for empathy, it makes for a smoother collaboration.”
Their reasons for not wanting to bathe may be something you can fix easily: Maybe they’d prefer to shower in the morning and you’re asking them to shower at night, or maybe they hate the shampoo you bought. “You can cooperate with the kid,” Dr. Heard-Garris said. “You don’t have to punish or berate them. You can work on solving it together.”
Frame hygiene positively: Taking good care of yourself is part of being a bigger kid, Dr. Cordiano said. You won’t feel your best unless you get exercise, eat good food and, yes, take a shower. Dr. Alderman emphasized the importance of maintaining routines during the pandemic. It’s especially important as we enter these dark winter months that we keep up a routine for our mental health and model those behaviors for our kids, which means getting dressed every day, having regular meals and bathing.
Set up smooth transitions. One reason for not bathing may be difficulty switching gears, Dr. Heard-Garris said. If you have a child who has problems going from one activity to another, visual cues such as a timer or a written-out schedule can help, she said.
Offer other sources of guidance. Sometimes kids just don’t want to listen to advice from their parents. Dr. Cordiano suggested giving your kid books explaining early puberty and hygiene like “The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls” and “Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys.” These choices are “grounded in science and really practical and accessible for kids, and a good jumping off point,” she said.
Try a compromise. If your child is still resistant, try to come up with a compromise. While there’s usually no medical reason that kids need to bathe a certain number of times a week, figure out the bare minimum you can live with. Dr. Heard-Garris suggested cleaning underarms and privates every day, and taking a full bath or shower three times a week.
Look for red flags. All three experts I consulted said that not bathing could potentially be a sign of depression — something we should particularly be on the lookout for during this difficult time. If this is a new behavior for your child, and you’re seeing other concerning changes in your kid, get in touch with your pediatrician as soon as possible.