The smell of puberty

Ah, take a deep breath. Do you smell that? It’s the smell of puberty. And it makes parents of tweens everywhere ask three important questions before the kids head out the door each day.

“Did you put on deodorant?”
“Did you brush your teeth?”
“Are you wearing clean underwear?”

One day our kids are toddling around in footed pajamas smelling like baby powder, and the next they’re stomping around in week-old socks smelling like, well, week-old socks. A change has come … and many times they’re oblivious.

Here’s the rest of the article, pasted here since the magazine where it was originally printed took down all its previous links.

“I just had a battle with a certain 12-year-old girl,” Amy Vanwestervelt, mom to three, said. “She was ready to head out to school in the shirt she was wearing the day before (that she also decided to sleep in), hair not brushed, and hadn’t brushed her teeth. She was ticked off that I made her change, brush and pull her hair back and brush her teeth.”

Give them the lowdown
Getting kids to pay attention to hygiene is an ongoing battle. My daughter loves to look cute for school – she’ll put together a pretty outfit and take time to put her hair in an actual bun. But brushing her teeth? It’s like I’ve asked her to deep clean the toilet with a toothbrush! And she has braces, so not brushing can lead to double trouble.

Short of constantly checking behind their ears and standing at the sink with a timer, what can frustrated parents do to get our children to take care of their bodies?

Jennifer Sheehy-Knight, Ph.D, psychologist at Children’s of Alabama, said education is key. “One of the things I often recommend is to pick up a book about what’s happening with their bodies and start reading it with them when you start seeing the first signs of puberty, usually around the ages of 9 or 10. This introduction will help with later discussions and you can use it as a reference.”

A few clues it’s starting: oilier skin, a growth spurt, growth of body hair, breast development in girls, and a change in voice for boys. If you’ve noticed a couple of these, welcome to puberty!

Kids this age are already anxious about starting middle school, the new boy-girl dynamic, and changes they feel in their bodies, so the last thing parents want to do is make it worse by telling them they stink.

“Talk about the changes in terms of puberty and development and that as a result their sweat is changing,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said. “Hormones change in each stage from childhood to teenage years to adulthood and everyone goes through it. Along with that development comes body odor – it’s a natural part of growing up. But that odor also signals that it’s time to get serious about how you take care of your body.”

Getting social
Additionally, puberty and its symptoms can also affect children socially. Who hasn’t been turned off by a friend’s bad breath or sweaty feet? Let’s face it, sometimes, even though we know it’s not nice, it’s hard to be around a person who stinks.

“Often kids cannot accurately smell their own odor,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said, “It’s important to use good hygiene, even if you think you’re OK, in order to avoid negative comments. Kids this age have to be more thorough. They can’t just give it the ‘once-over.’ Emphasize that it can impact them socially and help them understand that people will shy away. This might help them strive toward better hygiene.”

To do: Loosen the reins
This age group requires us parents to balance their autonomy with our authority. Explain the expectations then let them try to fulfill them. “They’re no longer children, but they’re not yet mature, so you still have to watch and monitor,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said. “As they’re making this transition, they are working toward more independence. However, they’ll also be forgetful, so a checklist might be a good idea.”

We all have to-do lists, at work, at home, on weekends. “You can help them create one for the morning routine and one for bedtime,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said. “This will allow them to take more responsibility and develop good habits.”

A checklist can work in tandem with a rewards system. For instance, set a showering goal of four days a week and when they reach it, they get extra video game time. Just make sure the incentive is something that will motivate them. It can be as simple as giving them a choice.

“A couple of things I do is buy a bazillion kinds of deodorant,” Heather Smith Davis said. “The girls can use any kind they want as long as they use it. And showers are on our chore list. Feed dogs, water dogs, sweep kitchen and hallway, take shower. They don’t get allowance if they don’t take a shower. And we have a gazillion soaps in there. Use whatever kind you want as long as it’s used.”

Orthodontist Britt Reagin, DMD, MS, said getting kids to take ownership is crucial to good hygiene, especially when they have braces. “We educate the child with an instructional video on how to take care of their teeth and what will happen if they don’t,” said Reagin, who completed his residency at UAB and now practices in South Carolina. Then he has them sign a contract, making them responsible for their teeth. “Most kids have never signed a contract, so it is a big deal to them. We also have in-office contests for kids who maintain regular hygiene visits with their dentist, and we grade hygiene at each visit. Much like homework, ultimately, it is home life and parents that determine good hygiene.”

Of course, parents still need to check that the kids taking care of business. Are they walking out the door with stained jeans or unbrushed hair? Are there more than two pairs of underwear in the laundry basket? Is the toothpaste tube still full? We can use our powers of observation to find out, no nagging required.

Light at the end of the tunnel
While we might think this battle over body will never end, hope abounds. Many parents report that one day their kids started showering daily or brushing their teeth without being told to, or, miracle of miracles, doing their own laundry! Eventually, they get the importance of good hygiene, as these moms can attest.

“My daughter is 12, and this summer she started showering without prompting and downright being made to,” Heather Hurlock said. “She now showers daily on her own. It has helped tremendously with the maintenance of her hair, and she even likes her hair being ‘cute’ again.”

Apryl Chapman Thomas said, “I battled with my daughter last year, but since she started sixth grade, she’s changed. She wants to blow dry and fix her hair. She loves lotions and spray from Bath and Body Works. I think her changes are not only because of her age and being in middle school, but also because she sees her friends doing the same, too.”

“It all comes down to education and understanding the possible consequences,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said. “If you’re not cleaning your face regularly, you’ll get pimples. If you don’t brush your teeth, you’ll get cavities. Once they start keeping up with good hygiene, it will become one less thing they have to worry about when it comes to finding their fit socially.”

And parents can change the out-the-door conversation.

“Great job on that last report card!”

“Nice outfit!”

“I love you!”

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