Health & Science

Shower battles: Balancing bodily autonomy with the need for hygiene

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Many kids, tweens, and teens go through a shower resistance stage. Maybe they used to spend hours splashing in the tub when they were younger, but now it’s a battle just to get them to take a quick shower a few times a week.

In theory, you’re all for giving your kids bodily autonomy and letting them make their own decisions, especially as they get older. But what if your child is starting to smell, look visibly dirty, or go for days without proper hygiene?

We can’t force them into the tub, but we can do our best to make a shower or bath more appealing, and make it much easier for our kids to make a healthy choice. Here are some tips for addressing a child or teen’s refusal to bathe, and getting past the shower battles with grace.

Be curious and flexible, not judgmental

To avoid turning the need to bathe or shower into a daily battle, you’ll need to have a little flexibility. It’s possible that your child is pushing back against your strict schedule, expectations, or demands — not the actual act of bathing.

Stay curious, and do your best not to judge your kid’s choices or attitudes about bathing. Ask open-ended questions to find out what your child’s issue is with showers. Is it the cold bathroom floors, the scent of the soap, not feeling comfortable with their changing body, not knowing how to detangle their hair, not understanding the purpose of bathing, or simply not wanting to add another thing to the routine when they’re already tired? Let them know that those things are open to discussion.

Learn about personal hygiene together

Growing kids may not be fully aware of hygiene concerns like body odor, bacteria, and buildup of oils and dead skin cells. To avoid shaming them about any of these topics, approach it from a place of curiosity and learning. For teens and preteens, talking about bodies might be embarrassing, but also necessary given all of the changes they are going through.

If your kid doesn’t want to listen to you talk about it, seek out sources such as puberty books or a trusted site for teens and young adults like Go Ask Alice! — or for slightly less mature kids, a cartoon video about personal hygiene.

On the flip side, it’s possible that some of your personal/cultural ideas about bathing are not really necessary from a health standpoint. For example, just because you always take a shower with soap every day doesn’t mean that everyone needs to, all the time. Your child’s habits should depend on objective factors such as their skin sensitivity, hair type, and body odor. Do some research together and find out what makes the most sense for them.

Let them take ownership of the shower routine

Perhaps there’s an easy change or two you can make to the routine that will make your child happier about taking a bath or shower when necessary. They can even make it fun, wacky, or soothing — in their own way!

For example, you could let your kid choose:

  • Which 3-4 (or any mutually agreed-upon number) days of the week to bathe
  • Whether to take a shower before school, after school/sports practice, or before bed
  • Ways to make the routine quicker/easier while still maintaining the basics of hygiene — like using a shower cap and washing their hair less frequently, washing off with a washcloth every other day instead of showering, just taking a foot bath for stinky feet, etc.
  • Fun products such as scented body wash, bubble bath foam, soap on a rope, animal-shaped loofahs, a hanging shower comb, extra fluffy towels, post-bath moisturizer, etc.
  • A big-kid bath toy or shower gadget to make shower time extra special, such as a waterproof tablet case, fun colored lights for the bathroom, a fogless shower mirror, or a shower radio or waterproof speaker for listening to music

Brainstorm some outside-the-box ideas with your kiddo — and if some of their suggestions are unrealistic, work with them to think of viable alternatives. By making shower time their own, they’ll be able to establish healthy routines while maintaining their independence.

Be patient and wait for maturity

Lastly, rest assured that your child will eventually become more interested in personal hygiene again. It won’t always be a struggle to get them to bathe, detangle, and smell fresh. Showering frequently may be an important cultural and societal norm, but it’s probably not the most important health concern.

If you remind yourself to be patient, empathetic, and open to your kid’s perspectives, you can ride out this refusal-to-bathe phase without getting yourself too worked up and damaging your relationship over it. Most kids and teens will eventually start to adopt a socially motivated interest in their appearance and how they smell. It just might be a few months — or years — down the road.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.