Q. What is the best way to motivate your middle school son to get interested in hygiene? Taking showers and keeping himself clean (and non-smelly) seems to be a very low priority.
A. As a parent, motivating a middle school son to do anything can be a challenge. Kids usually start middle school at age 12, which is roughly the age that adolescence begins. Developmentally, one of the fundamental issues that an adolescent is facing is a process of “separation and individuation.” This means that there is an internal drive for the adolescent to become more independent, less reliant on parents. This drive creates an unconscious feeling of discomfort in the adolescent that often results in angry and defiant behavior towards adults, especially parents. As you can imagine, it can be quite a challenge to get an early adolescent child to do what you want.
With this in mind, I often advise parents to pick their battles with their kids. Although poor hygiene in a teenager is definitely unseemly, upsetting, smelly, and possibly even embarrassing for the parent, it is not necessarily a major problem. If the hygiene problems occur in a spectrum of other difficulties, such as drug use, declining academic performance, increasing oppositional behavior, or social/peer struggles, then there is reason for concern and the child should be evaluated. If the poor hygiene begins to pose a health problem for the child (or your nostrils) there may be a problem.
If it seems that this occurs as an isolated issue, your best approach is likely to attempt to discuss your concerns with your child in an unthreatening, neutral way. In other words, ask what he thinks about showers, brushing teeth, etc. Do your best to listen and not be judgmental. Demonstrate you understand what your child is saying; clarify as needed. If he does not want to talk about it right now, respect that and indicate that you would like to know when he would like to talk about it. When you have ensured that he has said his piece, thank him for opening up and, if he is not too upset, gently inform him what your concern may be.
Ultimately, if the hygiene is not a symptom of a bigger problem such as depression or anxiety, your child will, between the combination of maturation and peer pressure, begin to pay more attention to hygiene – especially once he realizes that it is hard to get a date smelling like a locker room.