Don’t tell my kids—or my mom—but when I was seven years old, I stopped brushing my teeth for a year or so. A classmate called me “stink breath,” but it didn’t bother me. I’d just breathe in his direction, and he’d run away.
I have no idea why I decided to forgo that essential bit of personal hygiene (or how I could have stood the feeling of fuzzy teeth). But it turns out I probably wasn’t alone. Many school-age kids, old enough to know better, don’t regularly brush and floss their teeth, wash their hands, bathe, or shampoo their hair.
There are myriad reasons your kid might not handle his hygiene properly. Younger school-agers may lack the dexterity to properly brush, or a loose tooth may make it painful. Some kids are sensitive to strong odours and flavours, and may find minty toothpaste too “spicy” or the smell of their soap or shampoo nauseating. When it comes to older kids, proper hygiene “can be perceived as a chore,” says Susan MacKenzie, a child and youth psychiatrist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “Sometimes the reluctance is part of a larger power struggle with the parents.”
To avoid any guesswork, London, Ont., paediatrician Michelle Ponti recommends having a calm, non-accusatory chat. “Find out what it is [about the hygiene practice] that’s bothering your child,” she says. But pick your moment. Standing in the bathroom while everyone’s getting ready to rush out the door in the morning is not the best time to have that conversation. Instead, try to bring it up when the mood is light.
That’s what worked for Toronto mom Jennifer Combe*. After finding light brown streaks on the bathroom wall, she confronted her seven-year-old son and was met with anger and denial. One evening during the bedtime routine, she calmly told him she knew what he was doing and asked him why. “He said he sometimes gets poo on his fingers, and he thought I wouldn’t want him to wipe it on the hand towel,” says Combe. “Even though I thought it was obvious, I explained to him a better way to handle that problem, and he hasn’t done it since.”
It can also be helpful to explain, in simple, age-appropriate terms, the importance of good hygiene: They could get cavities, get sick or make their friends sick.
The best way to avoid hygiene issues is, obviously, to teach your kid healthy habits early and reinforce them by modelling the behaviour yourself. Still, these tasks can easily fall by the wayside. “Ten-year-olds should be able to take care of themselves, but they probably still need daily reminders,” points out Ponti.
One way to encourage buy-in is to get your kids involved in choosing their grooming products. “This will help them feel more in control,” says Ponti. A reward chart for younger kids can also help provide incentives.
If you’re already struggling with other conflicts with your kid, this may be one issue you pass off to a trusted adviser she’ll listen to, such as your family doctor or a teacher. Many kids find it easier to open up about personal matters with someone other than their parents.
As your kids get older, social stigma may be enough to get them to literally clean up their act. “Kids tell it like it is,” says Ponti. “Their friends will tell them they smell or have bad breath.”
Hygiene issues can be stressful, as parents worry about things like illness and cavities—or even feel embarrassed themselves by the behaviour—but as with most things, it’s probably temporary, and it’s not at all unusual. “Most parents have to deal with this at some point,” says Ponti. “It’s a normal part of a child’s development.”
* name has been changed
Did you know?
In extreme cases, lack of interest in personal grooming can be an indicator of a deeper psychological issue, such as depression or anxiety, particularly if your kid had previously been an effective groomer. Watch for other changes—loss of appetite, social isolation, altered sleeping habits, a decline in academic performance or overall mood changes—and if you do see a pattern or have a concern, speak with your family doctor.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 issue with the headline “Hygiene Help” p. 49.