This Stinks: How to Discuss Hygiene & Body Changes With Your Tween or Teen Body changes aren't the easiest things to talk about, but it's an important responsibility of parenting. BY KERI LUNT STEVENS
It's a tough talk, but your child will benefit from it even if they don't appreciate it right now.
“ Even if he or she isn’t showing signs of puberty just yet, now is the time to start teaching healthy habits.”
It’s pungent. Foul. Overwhelmingly offensive. It’s the first thing you notice when you walk into the room, and the only thing you think about until you leave.
You know what I’m talking about. It’s your kids—they smell. But somehow, despite the stench, they don’t seem to notice it. How is that possible?
Though we want to believe that proper hygiene is something that comes naturally, it’s a learned behavior and not something kids automatically pick up. It’s up to us as their parents to teach them.
When I was 12, I came home from school one day to find a stick of deodorant, a sports bra and a pile of pads on my bedroom dresser. That was the extent of information I received about puberty from my parents.
To them, talking about hygiene, menstruation and bodily changes was just too awkward—so they didn’t. Awkward myself (but equally curious), I spent the next few years looking to other sources—magazines, TV shows, textbooks and my friends, to know how to handle the hair on my legs and smell under my arms.
Let’s be clear. Though I did manage to take care of myself, this wasn’t a great way to learn. As parents, we have a divine responsibility to educate our children. No one wants their son or daughter to be the smelly kid in class. In addition to setting our kids up for a reputation that could eventually hurt their self-esteem (not to mention the health implications), creating bad hygiene habits now will only lead to bad hygiene habits later.
So sit down with your preteen and talk about the basics. Even if he or she isn’t showing signs of puberty just yet, now is the time to start teaching healthy habits.
Education and Expectations
To kids, hygiene can seem like a hassle. Lather, rinse, and repeat... every day? No thanks! From the beginning, explain to your child why each grooming process is necessary and then set clear expectations—like using soap every time they shower or clipping nails every Sunday. To get started it may be helpful to have a personalized daily routine hygiene checklist for them.
Bathing: While elementary-aged children may only bathe once or twice a week, tweens and teens should bathe once daily, as well as after swimming or sports, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends. Set a bathing expectation, as well as a shower time limit (such as five to 10 minutes). Provide a mild soap, and encourage your child to focus on washing their hands, feet, face and crotch.
Hair treatment: While bathing every day is a must, hair washing every day isn’t. Constant washing can strip hair of its natural oils, making it prone to breakage. New York City hairstylist Jeff Chastain told The New York Times that most people should only shampoo once or twice a week. Help your child decide how often to wash his or her hair based on their activity, sweat levels and type of hair. According to Chastain, those with straight hair usually need to shampoo more often and those with curly hair need to shampoo less often. In between washings, encourage children to use conditioner and possibly a dry shampoo.
Shaving: Explain to your child that it’s common for guys to shave their faces and girls to shave their legs and armpits. They’ve probably seen you or your spouse do it, and will be anxious to try it themselves. To avoid razor burn, provide your teen with a shaving cream or lathery soap and coach them through the first time. Remind them that because it’s easy to nick themselves with a razor, they should never share with a friend or family member.
Deodorant: Sweat itself is odorless, but when combined with bacteria found on the skin it can begin to smell. It’s possible your child doesn’t notice their own smell or doesn’t realize others can smell it. Because of this, once a child hits age 10 or so, it’s essential to start applying deodorant daily. Explain that deodorant can help mask the smell, and some deodorants, called antiperspirants, can even prevent sweating. ChildrensMD.org suggests Secret Clinical Strength for girls and Old Spice Sweat Defense for males. They both offer strong protection with a youthful scent.
Skin care: Different skin types require different care. Help your child identify their type to know how to best care for it. There are three general categories of skin types: dry, sensitive and oily.
* Dry skin has fine pores, a matte appearance and is drier toward the sides of the face. Use warm water instead of hot for this type of skin, and be generous with moisturizer.
* Sensitive skin feels dehydrated and can be itchy and red. For this type, or for skin prone to eczema, try a product like CLn SportWash, which can reduce the appearance of skin redness, drying and flakiness.
* Oily skin usually features blemishes and blackheads. For this type, facial cleansers and blotting papers work best.
Your child may have a combination of these skin types. A dermatologist is most qualified to help identify which type of skin they have and how to best approach cleaning and treatment.
Oral care: The American Dental Association recommends brushing your teeth twice a day—morning and night—with fluoride toothpaste. Doing so removes food and plaque, which can cause gum diseases and bad breath. Make brushing his teeth (and flossing!) part of your tween’s daily routine by encouraging it before they go to school each morning and before bed each evening.
Nail clipping: Grime can get under finger and toe nails, harboring germs and making hands appear dirty. Consider taking your son or daughter to get a professional manicure or pedicure—just to see how much effort is put into cleaning the hands, feet and nails. Moving forward, set a specific day each week for your child to do their own nail trimming.
Changing clothes: Putting on clean clothes, including socks and underwear, is an essential part of every day. Clothes not only retain body odor, but also strong external smells like pungent foods. If your child wears a school uniform, remind them to hang it up so it can air out between washings.
Body changes: Puberty can bring dramatic changes, but not overnight. Prepare your son or daughter for menstruation, voice changes, new emotions and more. Remember, children will follow their parents’ cues, so speak directly and avoid any euphemisms.
Respect Their Privacy
Some children will be open and curious about the changes, while others may be embarrassed and awkward. You know your child best, so cater to their comfort level. Some may fare better to read about hygiene and puberty on their own and then come to you with questions. In this case, try “My Body, My Self for Boys” or “The ‘What’s Happening to My Body?’ Book for Girls” by authors Lynda and Area Madaras, a mother-daughter duo known for their experience teaching teen health education.
Most tweens won’t appreciate being called out in front of their peers or family members. (Go figure, nobody likes being told "hey, you smell!" in front of others.) Instead, opt to have several casual conversations at home or in the car on the way to or from school, ball practice or dance class. Because they’ll likely procrastinate or have questions, plan to bring it up more than once.
Give Them a Say
Cost, availability and personal preference all play a part in determining what products your tween will use and when they’ll use them. When possible, give your child the chance to make some of the decisions. For example, if he wants to shower in the morning instead of before bed, let him. If she wants to pick out the type of deodorant she uses, let her. Doing so will give your child ownership over their own hygiene.
Make It Their Responsibility
It may seem like no matter how hard you try, there will still be nagging on your part and complaining and trying to avoid awkward conversations on their part. To combat this, change the expectation.
Treat their hygiene just like you do their other household duties, such as cleaning their room and taking out the trash. If they fail to complete the task or do it poorly, let there be reasonable repercussions. As your child gets older and starts to pay more attention to their peers and their crushes, personal hygiene will seem much less like a dreaded chore.
Refute Teen Hygiene Myths
In junior high, a girl told me not to use tampons because I wouldn’t be a virgin anymore if I did. Is it weird that I believed her? A straight-A student and I still didn’t think to double-check her facts. Even logical tweens and teens can be easily fooled by urban legends, especially when it comes to their changing bodies.
Be prepared to answer any questions your child may have and dispel any myths they may believe. For example, you may start by having them take this true or false quiz.
True or False?
Hair that is shaved off grows back faster, thicker and darker.
False. Shaving cuts hair to a blunt tip but doesn’t affect the hair follicle. This means shaving has no effect on the hair’s thickness, color or rate of growth, according to Dr. Lawrence E. Gibson of Mayo Clinic.
You’ll get head lice if you don’t wash your hair every day.
False. Personal hygiene or cleanliness has nothing to do with getting head lice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Head lice are spread by coming into direct contact with the hair of someone who does have lice; spreading by contact with clothing or other personal items is uncommon.
Sweat can lead to body odor.
True. Sweat is made up of mainly odorless water and salt. But when mixed with the bacteria found on your skin, sweat can begin to smell.
Using floss to remove food buildup creates gaps in your teeth.
False. If done properly, flossing can help prevent gum disease and even prevent bad breath. It doesn't create gaps in your teeth.
Sexually transmitted diseases can be passed without having intercourse.
True. You can be infected with an STD, like herpes or genital warts, through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area or sore, according to KidsHealth.org. That includes oral and anal sex.
You can get pregnant if you have sex while on your period.
True. Sperm can live inside your body for up to five days, according to the American Pregnancy Association. That means you can have sex toward the end of your cycle and actually conceive a few days later.
Eating greasy foods causes acne.
False. The four main factors that contribute to acne are bacteria, clogged pores, dead skin cells and oil production, according to Mayo Clinic. Hormones, medication and stress can aggravate acne, but don’t cause it.
Getting a tan cures acne.
False. Acne treatment usually involves over-the-counter products or acne medications. Whether topical or oral, these treatments work by reducing oil production, speeding up skin cell turnover, fighting bacterial infection or reducing inflammation, according to Mayo Clinic. Tanning causes long-term skin damage.
This is a lot of information, and let’s be honest, it’s not the easiest part of being a parent. Here’s a two-minute action plan for you:
* Decide how you’ll approach "the talk"—in the car on the way home from school? With a book? Make sure this is the right method for your child and their comfort level, but don’t avoid it just because it’s difficult and awkward.
* Provide the support and resources they need. Go on a trip to the store together for soap, shaving cream and deodorant so they can be part of picking out their own products. Then, be available to answer questions and dispel any myths or misinformation. If you know they won’t approach you with questions, show them some credible resources online where they can find answers to their questions.
* Make a checklist and hold them accountable. Whether you put it on a chart with the rest of their household chores or just follow up with them informally, check in frequently and help them take ownership of their own hygiene routine.
Keri Lunt Stevens is a journalist, cyclist and baby mama in California. She spends her time figuring out how to earn more air miles.