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.”