Question: I love that my daughter, 11, doesn’t care what her peers think about her appearance yet, but I want her to take care of herself without me becoming a nag. How do I get her to bathe, brush her hair, wear clean clothes and deodorant?
Answer: Oh, to enter a room full of tweens with the windows shut!
Unfortunately, you can’t make your daughter care for her hygiene. At 11, your daughter needs to be in charge of taking care of her body and looking after her appearance. She has to want to do it.
Your daughter is likely resisting what you’re asking her to do because she doesn’t want to be bossed. The more we try to control our kids as they move into adulthood, the more they will resist our control. Even if you could control your daughter, it’s not good for her. The research shows that too much parental control undermines the development of a child’s internal motivation.
This doesn’t mean that we as parents shouldn’t be involved in our children’s lives. Your daughter still needs your support and your input. At the same time, she needs to make her own decisions whenever possible. After all, the ultimate parenting goal is to raise children into adults who no longer need us. Here’s your chance to start.
Let her know that you’re sorry you’ve been bugging her so much about her hygiene and tell her that from now on that she’s in charge of her body. Make sure she knows she has your support. You can offer to take her shopping so she has the personal care products she might need and enjoy using.
I would also ask her if she has any questions about how to take care of her changing body. There are some great books available if either of you are uncomfortable. Make sure she knows that as her body changes, hygiene becomes a little more complicated. It’s important to be curious in this conversation and not have a set agenda for what you want to tell her.
Of course you are worried, as any parent would be, that she will smell bad and look bad and her peers will make fun of her. Understandably, you want to protect her from hurt and humiliation.
Unfortunately, we can’t protect our children from everything. Nor would we want to. Our children will encounter the bumps in the road. They need to learn that they will survive and recover; this knowledge only comes from experience.
Our job is to manage our own anxiety about all those bumps in the road. Research suggests that positive outcomes for our children correlate to how well we manage our own stress and anxiety around them. We try to control our children to ease our worry: “If I can just make her shower and smell nice, no one will ever make fun of her.” Getting rid of the bumps makes us feel better, but it leaves them unprepared for life’s challenges. We need to be okay with the bumps.
Trust that she will be able to handle it if someone were to make fun of her. If that happens, give her a hug and your shoulder to cry on. Resist “I told you so.” As difficult as it is for us as parents to see our children suffer, a negative experience with her peers could be a great motivator to make her want to pay attention to her hygiene.
If your daughter still doesn’t show much interest in personal hygiene, you need to cope with your own worry and stress. Don’t catastrophize this. Someday soon you won’t be able to get her out of the bathroom and you’ll look back wistfully on these days when she didn’t care about her appearance.
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, ages 12, 15 and 18.
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