Poor Hygiene in Preteens

Parent Q&A

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  • My middle school aged daughter has a tenuous grasp of personal hygiene, on a number of fronts. (1) Her complexion has gotten increasingly worse over the past two years. I think she wouldn't have a problem at all if she washed her face twice a day, but unless I nag to the point of argument, it won't get done. I've taken her to the pediatrician and dermatologist, both of whom have prescribed washes and topical solutions, but it doesn't really matter what they give her or advise her if she won't regularly wash her face and develop a consistent routine. I am worried about acne scarring; she couldn't care less about her complexion. (2) Same with hair and body washing, and tooth brushing. She has gotten to the stage of development where she could really use a quick shower every day; I have to remind and implore to get her to shower and wash her hair once every 3 days. Basically, she doesn't want to be bothered. (3) When she does wash her hair and brush her teeth, she doesn't do a very thorough job; most of the time her scalp and breath still smell when she is done.

    So my question is: Do pre-teens eventually embrace good personal hygiene habits? If so, when? Is this a matter of waiting out the clock until they "get it"? What strategies have you used to move them to regular, healthy habits? Or do I have a bigger challenge on my hands, and what advice can you share to manage it? Thank you.

    Your post resonated with me and though I don't have a solid answer or advice, I can tell you what I tried in a similar situation. My daughter's hygiene started to take a nosedive a bit later--around age 14. Here's what I tried, none of which worked: discussing casually; discussing rationally; nagging; playing the peer pressure card (gently indicating that "no one likes to be the smelly kid at school"); having relatives speak to her about it; saying nothing and simply rolling down the car window when we were together in the car. This lasted pretty much all through high school and was exacerbated by her disinterest in shaving her underarm hair (which I am fine with, but it did magnify the problem), and her insistence on wearing the same bandana every day for months, which she wiped her nose on several times a day and which  she insisted could not be washed. She was responsible for doing her own laundry as well, which she did rarely.  I should add that this entire time she had been very attentive to her dress and make-up, spending hours in front of the mirror, etc. in typical teen-girl fashion. This lingered on into the college years and ever so slowly got better. After all this time I figured at some point a friend, co-worker or boss would say something. Today she is in her mid-20s, working, and a delightful person. Her personal hygiene is better (she got one of those twirly battery-operated complexion brushes and uses an electric toothbrush). Her body and hair seem to smell fine. But she still does not do laundry frequently enough (no washing machine at her apartment) and sometimes her clothes smell of BO pretty badly and she does not seem to be aware of it.  As for your daughter, I bet she "gets it" sooner and at school they probably will have a presentation on hygiene this year talking about deodorant, showering, etc.  That school lecture didn't "stick" for my daughter, but I bet you'll have better luck. 

    I hear ya,

    Fellow Mom

    Welcome to life with a tween or young teen!  I'm sorry you're going through this, but I hope you will look back and grin one day.

    My daughter is about to turn 16. When she hit puberty around 11, she began to develop body odor, painful cystic acne, and frizzy tangled hair.  All would have greatly benefitted from regular, careful hygiene.  It literally took years to get it in place.  I guided her, as gently as I could, to develop calming self-care routines that included a nightly shower or bath.  I took her to Pharmacy and CVS and let her pick out shower gels and shampoos that smelled good to her.  I bought gentle, natural face cleansers, etc.  I tried to make it easy by getting disposable face wipes for the morning.  I complimented her every time she took effort, regardless of the results - not about how she looked, but how nicely she was taking care of herself.  I tied it into health and well-being.

    It helped that her karate instructor talked to her about showering after a work out and wearing a clean t-shirt to training. At some point, she started to care more, and it had nothing to do with boys (she still has little to no interest).  Around 7th/8th grade, something clicked and she started taking more and more care and interest, to the point of researching online how to better care for her hair more naturally in less time.  When the acne was particularly painful, I took her for a teen facial.  It was painful, and she hated it, but she left with some good advice and motivation to better care for her skin.  She is now religious about her skin care routine and can manage the acne with over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid  based products.  She follows the curly girl method of managing her natural waves with little time commitment (I left the curly girl book on her bedside table). She has developed terrific routines and looks forward to relaxing in the shower every evening.  

    So, I suggest plant the seeds, be patient, and let your daughter choose her way.  Be her guide, but let her make the decisions as she's ready.  Before you know it, you'll have a sweet smelling, radiant young woman on your hands. 

    (BTW: I've cringed at some of her choices, biting my tongue on the waste of disposable face wipes, or lecture on toxic chemicals in personal care products.  I've tried to quietly educate and she's learned fewer, better quality products are easier and faster to use with better results.)

    Could have written this post verbatim.. thanks for saving me the effort!  I'll look forward to any advice you receive.  

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Preteen's greasy unkempt hair

Sept 2014

We're having trouble teaching our 11-year-old daughter to properly wash her own hair. She's been bathing on her own for years, but now that she's a preteen and her scalp has become oily, her own shampooing is not getting her hair clean. She had sensory integration disorder symptoms when she was younger and some physical things still bug her, so when I sit down next to the bathtub and try to demonstrate for her how to massage her scalp for a shampoo, she flinches and gets extremely upset. I alternate between micromanaging her shampooing (which inevitably turns into a horrible battle of wills) and thinking "She's too old for this! Let's give her autonomy" but then her hair ends up looking greasy and she goes to school looking unkempt. I don't stress too much about looks but I feel that basic hygiene is a necessity. Does anyone have tips for teaching a sensory integration-disordered preteen how to wash hair? Anonymous

When my daughter didn't seem willing or able to take care of her own hair, I cut it off. We made an agreement at the beginning of the summer that if she wasn't taking care of her own hair by the end of the summer, it would be very short. The cutting was no problem, but she was sad afterward. Then she quickly got over it, and was able to brush and wash the shorter hair easily. She learned to take care of it as it grew out. A year later, it was full length and she was 100% responsible. So I recommend a serious haircut. Pixie cuts are cute!

Another tip. I think diluting the shampoo helps immensely with getting the hair completely clean. Save an old shampoo bottle. Put a capful of shampoo in it. Add about a cup of warm water. Shake. Apply. Since the shampoo is evenly distributed over the scalp, it is easier to get everything clean. Anon

At the risk of irking your parental instincts, I think you need to let it go. That has to be a humiliating experience for an 11 year old to have her mom washing her hair unwanted. She's got to be smelly, dirty, oily and figure it out on her own now. I too have an 11 year old girl and remember that age. Our job as parents in many degrees is to guide them, but also to guide them to figuring out the solution on their own. My daughter stinks of sweat and still hates to take a shower, so I finally asked her what was a reasonable number of times per week for her to shower. She agreed on 3 and we mutually decided on the days.

I think you can advise her, but let the final decisions / actions be hers and let it go. This is her body and she can come to you for advice, but she ultimately needs to decide for herself. It's an awkward age and our bodies and skin are doing all kinds of awkward things. The last thing she needs is her mom trying to fix her in a way that she doesn't want help with. So, she walks around with a greasy head...she'll figure out her way of dealing with it eventually. Another mom of an 11 yr old girl

We became the guardians of my husband's granddaughter in 7th grade, and I encountered precisely the same problem as you're going through. Like your daughter, her hair is very oily and sticks to her head unless it's very clean. The morning after taking a shower you could never tell that her hair had been washed the night before. It really looked awful.

At first I thought that she was using too much conditioner, but then I measured the shampoo in her bottle and I discovered that she was not using enough shampoo at all! Like your daughter, she suffered from symptoms of sensory processing disorder when she was younger (particularly over-responsivity). {See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_processing_disorder#Signs_and_symptoms} And so I believe that you are correct to infer a relationship between the two behaviors.

The solution: I took her to Katrina, one of the terrific stylists at Peter Thomas Hair Salon, for a shampoo and cut. Katrina could instantly tell that she was not shampooing properly, and she explained to her, in a non-judgmental way, how important proper shampooing was for a healthy scalp. And of course she also demonstrated proper shampooing techniques.

I WAS NOT PRESENT AT THESE APPOINTMENTS, a factor I believe was key.

I use ''appointments'' in the plural, because the change didn't happen overnight. I would say that five months passed before good shampooing practices finally became the norm. But it's worked: three years on, her hair now looks shiny and clean almost all the time! Very occasionally she has ''backslid'' into her old poor habits, but it's a pretty rare occurrence these days.

I have confidence that your daughter *will* take pride in her beautiful hair, and will enjoy maintaining it, once she gets in the habit. ~ Lover of good hygiene

12-year-old daughter's hygiene issues

May 2006

My younger daughter will turn 12 this summer. She's starting to develop breasts and underarm hair and is showing a new interest in her appearance. However, hygiene is still a huge issue. She brushes her teeth just fine, but anything else is a struggle - hands, nails, face - and when it comes to showering and washing her waist-length hair, it's an out-and-out battle. She takes pains over her appearance and really tries to look nice, brushing and styling her hair and choosing nicely-fitting clothes and colorful accessories - she has her own offbeat style of which she is very proud - so I don't think she is trying to hide her developing body behind poor hygiene. I hate treating her like a four-year-old who has to be constantly monitored and reminded, and she hates it when I tell her that she is not clean, but she'd go around filthy if I didn't. Has anyone encountered this situation, and does anyone have any suggestions? Oakland mom

I have sons, not daughters, but I had this exact problem with them throughout middle school and in to high school. They just did not want to set aside the time required to do basic grooming. Too many other more interesting activities. I had a rule that they had to at least shower every other day. One of them would pretend to shower by ducking his head under the running water, fully clothed, and put a drop of shampoo on it so that when I sniffed his head he smelled clean. He also held his toothbrush under running water so I'd think he had brushed.  Aargh!! If you're in the bathroom anyway, how about just washing up !!!?!?  They eventually did start taking a little more care in their grooming, but it happened at various ages, as early as 13 for the oldest, and as late as 16 for the other two.  It was very aggravating and exhausting, and I did have to nag constantly, especially the son who had acne and really needed to wash his face regularly. It really is like the toddler stage, where you just have to pound the routine in over and over till they get it.