Body odor can be intense during the teen years. But what do you do if your child seems blissfully unaware or uninterested in dealing with the fact that he or she smells? Or, even worse, what do you do if it isn’t your own child, but their friend or peer who has the problem? Do you talk with the child? Approach the parent? Keep reading this week’s Parenthetical post for some ideas for addressing these “stinky” situations.

Why do some kids seem resistant to dealing with the problem of body odor?

Most adults do not remember the specifics of their transition to puberty. What may seem obvious in hindsight is often a gradual, confusing, and not always welcome process. While some young people are ready for these changes, others are not fully tuned in to or eager to embrace what’s occurring until it is upon them. Finally, there are kids who simply lack the sensitivity to notice or understand the social implications of body odor and the potential effect it could have on their status and relationships with others.

Parents and those who work with youth can help by communicating openly and intentionally preparing youth for changes that will occur and sensitively acknowledging the changes that have already occurred. Avoid “the talk” and/or direct reference to the specific child. Instead have regular micro-conversations about the specifics of hygiene. Don’t assume that young people will know how to care for themselves unless someone tells them:

  • How and where to wash – The need to focus on to those parts of the body that excrete more sweat and oils during adolescence
  • How often to wash – The need to bath more frequently (often daily) and immediately following physical activity
  • The use of anti-bacterial soap – Bacteria interacting with sweat causes odor. Antibacterial soap kills the bacteria.
  • The use of antiperspirant/deodorant – How they are different, how to choose the right product and when to apply them
  • Managing the effects of odor on clothing – understanding that odors can get trapped in clothing sometimes even after they are washed, when and how to wash clothes, the fact that clothing needs to be changed more frequently, the need to wear socks with shoes and allow shoes to air out

What to do when subtlety is not working?

Some kids just don’t seem to get it, even when you are pretty direct or even blunt. For kids who are uninterested in tackling the body odor issue on their own initiative, establish rules that allow you to co-exist and manage the problem until the young person’s emotional maturity catches up with their physical maturity. If you make them family (or program rules for those who work or volunteer with youth) that take effect at a specific age, say age 9 or 10, you can avoid singling anyone out and still include guests.

  • Require daily bathing and additional bathing after sports activity or physical exertion
  • Expect teens to wear different clothes for sports activity and to change out of them immediately
  • Do not allow teens to sit or lay on cloth furniture unless they have done all of the above
  • Make certain that teens’ clothes are washed frequently as soon after wearing as possible, for best results
  • Specify that shoes must remain on feet in closed quarters, such as a car and that athletic shoes should be left outside the house or in an entry way

What if the child is not yours? The Frank Conversation

Structuring the Environment

If you are a coach, volunteer or camp counselor who works with youth

  • Establish and explain the rules for your program, event or camp to everyone, preferably before you have a significant problem.
  • Create a list of required items for any overnight event, including anti-bacterial soap, anti-perspirant/deodorant and adequate clean clothes that you require students to change into after physical exertion.
  • Make certain the facilities are structured so that youth have the opportunity and privacy necessary to foster hygiene, such as adequate and private shower facilities, access to utilize swim time where appropriate, anti-bacterial soap available in the showers (even if you have to bring it along and place it in the shower facilities yourself), designated spaces to dry towels and to leave shoes to air out.
  • It may make sense to encourage your program or facility to invest in keeping spare supplies on hand to share if necessary, including antiperspirant/deodorant, inexpensive towels, foot powder, anti-bacterial soap, even large T-shirts. **Caution: You will need to be very sensitive as to how and when you offer these items to a young person.

Talking with Parents

Don’t assume that parents are unaware of the problem. For the many reasons outlined above, parents may be very aware and frustrated with the fact that their child is struggling with this issue and not yet able to resolve it.

Approaching parents of your child’s friend

  • Try telling a story of how someone you know (possibly even your own teen) who has struggled with the issue of body odor and use that as an opportunity to share some of the strategies they used, even if you have to embellish a bit.
  • Create potential openings to discuss the issue by talking about the changes brought on by puberty.

Approaching parent(s) of youth you work with or mentor

  • As you share that you have noticed that their child is struggling with body odor, let the parent know this is a normal part of puberty and adolescence.
  • Make certain the parent feels that you have their child’s best interest at heart.
  • Ask if there is anything that you can do to help and offer suggestions and strategies if asked.
  • Make parents aware that difficult to manage body odor should be discussed with a physician.

Talking Directly with a Young Teen

If you have a good relationship with the teen and you are certain that you can demonstrate sensitivity and empathy, you can consider approaching the teen directly about the issue.

  • Emphasize that body odor is normal, though some folks struggle more than others. Regardless, it can and must be managed.
  • Point out that they are likely missing social cues indicating that those around them are uncomfortable.
  • Strategize together with the young person.
  • Emphasize that the issue has nothing to do with their value as a person and that things will get better as they get older.

Body odor is one of the many changes occurring during adolescence that can challenge young people and those who interact regularly with them. It can be an embarrassing and off-putting issue. But with foresight, sensitivity, and good communication the difficulty can be addressed and managed effectively.

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Article by Becky Mather

Becky is the Prevention Education Coordinator with the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board where she oversees statewide efforts to offer professional development and training to family serving professionals to promote healthy family functioning and reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. She and her husband are the parents of two adult children and a teenage son who challenges them to keep honing their parenting skills and strategies. Becky previously served as a parenting outreach specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension and was one of the co-founders of Parenthetical.