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February 2, 2021

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 25

How Do I Get My Smelly Teen to Shower?

Episode 25

How do you get kids to understand the importance of hygiene? A mom writes in that her son is making life unbearable at home because he refuses to take regular showers since he has spent much of the year learning remotely. Dr. Lisa explains the concept of habituation – the process of growing accustomed to sensory input – and discusses with Reena the science behind sensation and perception. Lisa offers strategies to help kids understand why they can’t smell themselves and gives guidance on when, as a parent, it’s time to lay down the law. Reena and Lisa also talk about the sweet smell of success. Reena’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers made it to the Super Bowl. What life lessons can Tom Brady and Gronk teach us from the football field? Lisa’s 1/29/29 article in The New York Times: Helping a Teen Who Is Angry About House Rules on Covid  

February 2, 2021 | 28 min

Transcript | How Do I Get My Smelly Teen to Shower?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 25: How Do I Get My Smelly Teen To Shower?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


LISA: So, Reena.




LISA: I happen to know that you are very excited about the coming weekend, maybe losing your mind? You’re a huge football fan.


REENA: You’ve been reading my Twitter feed.


LISA: I have, and you’re from Tampa Bay.


REENA: I am so proud of my Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Can I just tell you as a girl who grew up in Tampa, almost two decades since we’ve been here and it’s just so awesome. I’m so excited for my home town.


LISA: Well, and you love football.


REENA: I do love football. It’s because my son, he’s 10, he got into it so I have gotten into it and, you know, I had a chance to actually interview Rob Gronkowski about 18 months ago or so and spend time with his family, and so it was nice to get a real inside view of American football.


LISA: And is Rob Gronkowski as larger than life in person as he seems?


REENA: Can just tell you he is larger than you can imagine in life, but he’s also kinder. Genuinely kind and his whole family is like that. I spent a lot of time with his mom and dad,  his brothers and girlfriend Camille, and, god they are just a great family.


LISA: And doesn’t he have like three brothers and they’re all giants?


REENA: Four. Five boys.


LISA: Oh my goodness.


REENA: Mama Gronk. I keep saying Mama Gronk has got to write a book. She’s got to write a book.


LISA: I think Mama Gronk actually would have some insight on the question that we’re going to take on today.


REENA: I almost thought we should have Diane phone in because she would definitely have something to say about this. So, we got this letter, I’m going to read it to you: ‘I’m a single mother of two teenagers in Connecticut. A girl who’s 16 and a boy who’s 13. For the most part they’ve been coping well with all the abrupt changes that the pandemic has brought to their lives. However, I’ve been struggling to get my 13-year-old boy to keep up with his personal hygiene. He sometimes goes four to five days in a row without showering. He stinks and his bedroom stinks. When his school was fully remote or hybrid his excuse was that he was home most of the time and didn’t need to shower as much, but he’s now in school five days a week. He doesn’t care that he shows up with oily hair and stinky armpits. I bought him several books on boy growth, which includes chapters on the importance of staying clean, and we’ve discussed that with him to no avail. Please help me, Lisa. How do I get my son to shower more often? My daughter and I will be forever grateful.’ I love this letter.


LISA: It’s a great letter and I know this is not unusual.


REENA: What do you think is happening here?


LISA: So, it’s interesting. Sometimes as a psychologist I’m like, oh this is a really complex dynamic and we want to go deep and uncover the rich, you know, kind of unconscious aspects, okay this is not one of those. The deal on something like this is not unusual for younger teenagers, and maybe 13-year-old boys whose puberty has kind of snuck up on them, they just don’t really get it. They’re  kind of out to lunch sometimes about what’s happening with their bodies and the way their bodies are changing and the you of ramifications of that, and so I actually think the most useful way to approach this is to not make more of it than is necessary. I mean just to really treat it like, he kind of doesn’t get it, and then to try to help him get it. But that’s, I think, the most commonsensical approach and also most likely to be useful approach.


REENA: But how do you make him get it when it’s like he can’t smell himself.


LISA: Well, see this is the thing. They can’t smell themselves, and they need to be helped to understand that, and one of the areas this gets us into in an academic psychology is sensory and perception, and one of the things that we study in that area of psychology is something called habituation, and this again, and we do this all the time academic psychology, we come up with fancy terms and a whole lot of research and everybody’s like, uh, yeah we know. So habituation is where you get used to a sensory input and no longer notice it, and we do this all the time as humans because otherwise we would be flooded with sensory information, and so an experiment and, you know, every parent knows their kiddos best and what’s going to fly and not fly, but if his mother felt that she needed to explain habituation to her son, and basically what we say, we call olfactory habituation, like getting used to smells, happens really fast, but if she needs to explain it she could say to him, okay buddy come here. Hold out your hand, I’m putting a coin in your hand, and then say to him, you see how you feel it? Now let’s hang out here for another five, 10 seconds, see how you no longer feel it? That’s habituation. You’re designed to not continue to notice sensory input because otherwise you would feel your clothes all day and you’d hear the hum of your computer all day, and then say, you know, either with or without this experiment, smell habituates really quickly, and you know, Reena, have you ever had this happen where you leave and you go away on vacation, well now we’re talking a long time ago, you come back to your house and you notice the smell of your own home?


REENA: Yes. Yes.


LISA: But only after being gone for like days at a time. It always smells that way we just don’t notice. So, I think part of how you keep this neutral, which is where we want this, is to be like, buddy we’re not saying you’re trying to make things hard, we’re saying you can’t smell the situation. We can smell the situation, and so there’s a problem here whether or not you’re aware of it.


REENA: So, I think this is so much harder as were in quarantine because personal hygiene, I can see how these kid’s like, well I’m not seeing anybody, I don’t need to do this, and I find it goes head to head trying to get them to take a shower at the end of the day I’m exhausted, they’re exhausted, I just don’t know when to have this conversation?


LISA: Exactly, right? And you can just see what a setup this is, right? You’re exhausted, they’re exhausted, your kid smells bad, they still have homework to do, I mean the kid’s 13, he’s probably eight grade and he’s probably got some work to do, and here comes another night where you really need the kid to shower and he’s not in the mood to shower or he wants to relax finally after a long day. So, I think some of how to approach this, and this is a great generic lesson for all of parenting, is when you want to have this conversation? And you probably don’t want to have it at, you know, 9:30 at night when the stakes feel really high and everybody’s at their worst. So, part of how a parent would want to approach this, and especially if they’re going to do corny things like, give me your hand, I’m going put a coin in it, is to do it at a time when people are in a good mood, the day is relatively fresh, to not roll up on a kid at the worst possible moment, which is basically when this is almost always likely to go down.


REENA: Yeah. So, when do you find is best? You always say you’ve got to have a cooling off period, and so when you’re head-to-head and you start to talk about at the end of the night, when is the appropriate time to talk?


LISA: I think maybe on the weekend. Maybe even make an appointment to talk, which again I know sometimes can sound really corny, but I think a lot about how, as a parent, you’re thinking and thinking and thinking about something, and then you want to talk about it with your kid.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: and they’re hearing about it for the first time. And so, it might actually be a pretty good idea to say to this boy, buddy we’ve to figure out the showering thing because what we’re doing isn’t working, and actually it’s one of my favorite favorite phrases clinically, what we’re doing isn’t working, like you to call it that. And say, let’s talk tomorrow. Let’s find time just to sit for three minutes, even guaranteeing them that it’s not going to be some long tedious conversation. Say, can we talk tomorrow for three minutes when you get home from school? Can we just make a plan for that? And then he can kind of orient himself to that conversation, maybe be more useful in that conversation, and again I would say that’s true for lots of things in parenting where the parent is thinking and thinking or maybe stewing and stewing, and then drops on the kid and the kid’s like, wham what just happened? And then the parent should not be surprised that the conversation goes disastrously from that point.


REENA: Wow. How do you motivate them, right? I don’t want to have this discussion, okay I’m going to have to have at some point, you say don’t surprise him, like let him know it’s coming, but I don’t want to keep having this discussion. How do I get them to self motivate and do it?


LISA: I think the magic word, and this is what I’ve become much more interested in since the pandemic began, and I know what we’ve talked about this, is routines. That it cannot be a day by day question mark about when this kid showers, and so maybe having teed up the conversation, giving the kid the warning the conversation’s coming, and maybe even as part of teeing it up is saying, buddy I want to talk about this, and one of the questions I want to answer is when in the day are your showers happening. I want you to think that through and walk out of the actual conversation, or maybe walk into the actual conversation, saying, okay look. Our routines are all wonky from the pandemic and I get it, but here we are. You’re in a rhythm of going to school five days. Showering needs to happen every day, and I would just say that in a very matter of fact kind of this is a non-negotiable. When in your day does it work for showering to happen? And really make him think it through, and if he says, I’ll do it at the end of the night, you might say, uh really? Okay let’s try it and if that doesn’t work we have to come up with another point in the day, but you want to move the friction off of the question of whether or not this kid a showering, the kid is showering, to the question of where in his routine does he want to make it happen?


REENA: Slightly shameful but I feel like I need to have this conversation first with myself.


LISA: Oh. Yeah. No, no, no, actually I know what you mean.


REENA: I notice I get nothing done on the days I don’t shower in the morning. I’m not as productive, I’m still in the PJ’s, the kids are out the door to school, like I’m realizing I need to have this talk with myself.


LISA: It’s true. In some ways, actually, what you’re giving this mom is another opening, which is to say if she’s feeling what you and I are feeling, because I agree some days I’m like, uh when was I going to shower because since I stayed home all day, and I think I might exercise and so I’m putting it off, a mom could even saying in this moment, or a dad could even saying this moment, buddy like I’m struggling to come up with new routines, but I feel a lot better when there’s predictability my day and the basics like showering, brushing our teeth, combing our hair, I’m not figuring this out on a day to day basis, I’m getting better at it. You need to get better at it. But the other thing that’s really important in this that’s kind of underlying what we’re saying, is there are lots of points in parenting where you can just lay down the law, and you don’t have to be embarrassed or feel like somehow that’s not loving parenting, where you’re like, dude okay, the reality is you need to shower every day, like it’s okay to just say that to kids and not feel like you’re being ungenerous or an empathetic.


REENA: So, when you say that you can just lay down the law, what about when I say, okay it’s lay down the law time, when do you find that works or could be used best? That tactic, right? Of laying down the law?


LISA: Well, it’s  interesting you say best because what I think is often behind the question is when is my kid going to like it and is it going to go smoothly?


REENA: Right. That’s it.


LISA: So, if you could toss that out the window this gets a whole lot easier, right? Your kid may not like it. It may not go smoothly, and it’s okay, actually it’s essential to parenting, that there be moments when we’re like, yup. I see you’re unhappy about this. This is in the category of the non-negotiables. It’s what’s happening, and, you know, that’s it, and just to accept that your kid may be angry with you and may be upset with you, and it’s a little bit of evidence that you’re just doing your job, and you don’t have to make it spicier than that. You don’t have to be hurt that your kid is angry. I think that that’s actually where this could go wrong. I think this is, we were talking last week about single parents, I was so good in this letter that the mom has a 16-year-old daughter as her ally because if she really, really makes this 13-year-old mad at least she’s got the 16-year-old daughter to be like, mom I got your back.


REENA: And sometimes the older sibling can help with that in many ways, the fact that she’s older, but I like this concept you say that there are non-negotiables. Like what are non-negotiables? Like obviously hygiene, taking a shower, but what do you put in that category?


LISA: Safety is a non-negotiable, and I think that’s really especially as kids move into later adolescence and especially you know hopefully is the pandemic eases back and we can open up, safety is a non-negotiable like anything involving where you could get hurt I think parents have every right to just lay down the law. And the the thing is kids expect parents to lay down the law about that. It actually weirds kids out when grown ups don’t act like grown ups, and so they know you’re supposed to shower every day, or this boy’s catching on to this, they know you’re not supposed to do dangerous things and if parents are flexible or casual about those things kids find it very strange, but they tell me in my practice they don’t tell their parent.


REENA: Oh interesting.


LISA: Yeah. So, one of the things that has happened multiple times in my practice, and this is with older teenagers but it could happen with 13-year-olds, is where a kiddo will say to me, yeah so we were over at, you know, Jenny’s house and like her mom will buy for us, meaning alcohol, and they put it forward kind of casually, and I’ll say, really? And the kid will go, I know isn’t it weird? Isn’t it weird? And kind of putting that casual piece forward they’re sort of, I think not wanting to tip my hand one way or another, you know, wanting to really see what I think, and I’ve learned in those moments not to be cool about it, because then the kid thinks, okay where is a grown up? Could somebody please find me a grown up? So, I think parents should feel like they are on enormously firm footing around hygiene and safety and basic decency and even if their kid bristles a little bit, they should pat themselves on the back, like good, my kid expected that. May have been doing their independence-seeking job to seem a little bit, you know, put off by it, but there are things that are just, they’re just things, and they’re just going to happen.


REENA: Yeah. When you are trying to motivate them and get them to be sort of on the same page as you on something like this, what else can a parent do?


LISA: So, I don’t think we give boys enough credit for liking bath products.


REENA: What? Really


LISA: Yeah. You know there’s like this huge giant market of smelly bath products for girls and women?


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And I definitely, for my adolescent daughter a lot of her Christmas list is Satsuma this, and and I love it because I’m a big fan of what I call consumable Christmas. Like stuff that we’re going to use up.


REENA: Consumable Christmas. I love that.


LISA: Yep. But boys often like, I’m going to keep calling them smelly bath products too because this can take a lot of forms. So, Reena, you’ve got a ten year old son. Does he still use like straight up soap or has he expressed interest in branching out?


REENA: Soap and shower gel, you know, all that stuff but both of my kids and and myself I’ve got to admit, have really gotten into the concept of taking a bath with like bath salts, and it kind of makes them feel like they’re in a hot tub or pool so they’ve gotten into that, but my daughter moreso.


LISA: But boys will take baths. So, I guess one of the ways to have this conversation is all right, the non-negotiable is you will be bathing every day. Here are some negotiables: when you do it, whether you shower or take a bath, right? This mom could offer that to her son, and then the other thing I think she should say is, and if you want to go to the drug store with me, we will go when there’s plenty of time and you can stand there in front of the full array of products and smell through your mask as many as you want until you pick the one you like, and there’s all sorts of, you know, like Old Spice has a long line of stuff there’s always a sport version for boys who see themselves as athletic, you know, I mean that’s a market and so it can be made nice. It can be made fun. It doesn’t have to feel all tedious.


REENA: So, I know your psychologist, but can you weigh in on what age kids should start wearing deodorant? Because it’s also not just a boy thing, right? Girls and puberty, right? Odors change.


LISA: Absolutely. I think as soon as there’s a sense that they have started to, you know, have smells coming from their armpits, and what’s important and again one of those things that as soon as I say it everybody will be like, oh yeah that’s right, girls, it’s not on average, actually the modal age of onset the most frequent age of onset of puberty for girls is 12, and boys 14, but there’s stuff happening before those ages too, but the bottom line is your daughter is going to need this usually before your son just because puberty occurs younger in girls, but again with deodorant if you get the sense that it’s something that it’s time, you will smell that it’s time, I would take any child to the drug store and and be like, all right. Enjoy. And make it a growing up thing, a fun thing, an indulgence thing, a special thing.


REENA: And if you don’t feel like going, you can even order online and say here are the different types of scents. Let’s try it, you know, and have it delivered to your doorstep.


LISA: Exactly. Exactly. THere’s probably some deodorant sampler out there right we could try. THe thing to watch out for , The reason I kind of stuck with the word smelly, are the body sprays. Have you heard anything from your son about body sprays? Have you noticed any interest in that?


REENA: I don’t think they’re into that yet, no.


LISA: Okay well, Reena, get ready because there will be a day where he comes, is his room upstairs?


REENA: Upstairs. Yep.


LISA: Where he comes downstairs and somehow he will have gotten his hands on some Axe.


REENA: Oh my gosh.


LISA: And sprayed himself with it, and you’re going to feel like you’re going to pass out. He’ll use way too much. You’ll be overwhelmed.


REENA: That is funny.


LISA: Yeah. I mean, I think the key here is like, and especially if this 13-year-old boy in this wonderful letter, you know, tries to move in this direction, you can’t cover up smells. Like you can’t put Axe on instead of showering, and then the challenge with stuff like Axe, boys typically do go through this phase where they’re really into the body sprays and the way they smell because it does feel older, remind them again about habituation because you stop smelling it, and so you put on more because you can’t smell it anymore, and then you’re basically walking around like a cloud behind you. So, they need help sometimes down regulating how much Axe body spray they use.


REENA: You know I feel like you need to write to the National Psychological Association and tell them habituation, what do you call it again?


LISA: Habituation.


REENA: It’s such a strange word that doesn’t mean much to the outside world, maybe that’s, you guys have an inner club here. We need a new name like I don’t know. I don’t know what but habituation it’s so funny.


LISA: It’s kind of adapting. Like you just adapt to it. You just stop noticing. I mean like we do, I’ve said this before, we have to have our own language because I don’t know why we do that.


REENA: But I love it, and I have to say go Tampa Bay Buccaneers. My heart is with you.


LISA: I’m going to root for you. I’m going to route for you. I ama Denver girl and so the Broncos have always been important, and it’s actually very funny, and now I live in Cleveland, who did surprisingly well this year.


REENA: That’s right.


LISA: But actually, so Tom Brady, a quarterback, was an undergraduate football player at the University of Michigan when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan.


REENA: No way.


LISA: Yeah.


REENA: Was he good back then?


LISA: Well kind of like unremarkable.


REENA: No I can’t imagine.


LISA: Yeah. He was picked 199th in the draft.


REENA: Yeah. Everyone talks about this, right?


LISA: Right? Like the best steal of all time.


REENA: This is why I love him, you know, just proof that he came from essentially nothing and people who were like, he’s not gonna do anything in Tampa Bay, what does he think? And boom. We made it to the Super Bowl. So I love it when people rule people out or think that they’re not good enough, and they prove that.


LISA: Yeah. He was definitely an unexpected gift our of University of Michigan football.


REENA: Amazing. Amazing. I love it. So go Buccaneers.


LISA: Go Buccs! Go Buccs!


REENA: It’s so funny because you’re talking about smelling bad and and I’m just thinking, we’re like in the dead of winter and what is summer going to be like, and speaking of dead of winter, like February should be like is it National Mental Health month because we’ve got to do something. We’ve all got to snap out of it, right?


LISA: It’s not but it should be. So National Mental Health Month is May and feel like, hmm by May people tend to feel a little bit better. February is an unbelievably hard month from a mental health perspective, and the way I know this is that I am a little bit old fashioned in how I do my private practice and I keep a hand-written ledger of my billing hours, and partly do it just because I’ve always done it that way and partly I do it because then I know it’s 100 percent actually secure and confidential and not online anywhere, and especially when I was practicing a lot more with kids and teenagers, February was the only month that my ledger went on to a second page when I was doing my billing.




LISA: And I noticed that every single year, and there is something about February, especially for kids and teenagers, but I think also for grown ups, where for kids and teenagers, whatever is not working well at school is now fully realized. Like you are really in the thick of whatever has been brewing that’s not so great at school, and the relief of getting to the end of the school year is still too far away to provide much comfort, and so clinicians, and this is true all my colleagues in child adolescent psychology, we always know February is when we’re going to get a lot of calls to our practice, and so here we are, start of February, and we’re all thinking man oh man, that’s prepandemic.


REENA: We feel it. We feel it. So, we are launching something fabulous for the month of February. Tell us about it, Lisa.


LISA: We’re going to do it on our Ask Lisa Podcast Instagram. Every day there’s going to be something with the hashtag #28daysofmentalhealthtogo, and every day there will be a little simple tip about what you can be doing for yourself, for your kids, or with your kids just to keep your mental health higher in the incredibly hard month of February. So, follow us on the Asl Lisa Podcast Instagram. It will be there for you every morning, #28daysofmentalhealthtogo.


REENA: I love it. I’m looking forward to it. We need a pick me up every day, so this is so great, and also when you have a fabulous book giveaway. Tell us about that.


LISA: So, in keeping with puberty and smellyness we are going to give away to one winner three books from Dr. Kara Natterson, who was our guest not too long ago.


REENA: Love her.


LISA: She is the author of fantastic puberty books for kids. So she’s the author of “Guy Stuff: the body book for boys” and she also is the author of the American Girl series “The Care and Keeping of You”, which is split into younger girls and older girls. So, we’re going to do a package of those three, and we want everyone to enter whether you only have a daughter or only have a son because one of the things that I think is really important is that girls should know how boy puberty works and boys should know how girl puberty works. So, don’t just enter thinking, I only want the boy or the girl books, like take them all, regardless of the the sex and gender of your child.


REENA: That’s great. I love it and so to enter just follow us on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, and like our book giveaway, tag a friend and leave a comment and you’re entered to win. You can enter as many times as you want. We’re sticking to folks in the U.S. right now but even if you’re abroad we’d love to hear from you. And to wrap it up today, Lisa, what’s your parenting to go?


LISA: So, one of the rules I live by my own parenting is that no one in the world will think my kids are as cute and charming as I do and part of my job is to get them ready for the world, and so when we have to lay down the law as parents that should be what’s behind our motivation, which is to recognize that our kids need to navigate the world and they need to be polite and decent and have good hygiene because the world will not extend to them the same margins of affection and love regardless of how they act that we will, and so if any parent is hesitating to lay down the law with their kid one way to think is, how’s this going to fly outside of my home? And if you know it will not fly outside of your, do your kid the favor of getting the rules right at home.


REENA: Great advice. Getting it right at home. Home training, best training.


LISA: Exactly. See you next week.


REENA: Thanks so much, Lisa.



The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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