Q: My 12-year-old stepdaughter is well into puberty, but she avoids baths and showers, she winces if someone gives the slightest tug to her thick and beautiful hair and she even says that it hurts if someone brushes her hair or styles it.
These problems have gone on for years so she styles her own hair and bathes herself, too. But not very well.
I thought that peer pressure or vanity would help her get over this problem by now, but time hasn’t helped. When we see my stepdaughter — which happens once a week and every other weekend — she often tells us that she waits several days to bathe at her mother’s house, where she lives most of the time, that she hasn’t bathed since she was with us the last time and that she doesn’t change her underwear from one shower to the next. Her mom thinks that this is just a phase, and has jokingly told us that she has “given up” on getting her daughter to brush her hair and, presumably, to bathe.
At our house, we simply tell her that it’s “shower time” even though she stalls, avoids and promises to take one “later.” When she does take her shower, however, her hair seldom looks or smells clean, so we finally asked her to show us how she washed it. It turned out that she barely touches her hair and never works her fingers all the way to the scalp.
My stepdaughter is so beautiful, but her unbrushed hair makes her look raggedy and she’s somewhat smelly, too. And yet she likes to swim and if we can get her in the bathtub, she doesn’t want to get out!
Nagging doesn’t work and it embarrasses her, too. What else can we do?
A: Hygiene really starts to matter after menstruation begins because that’s when the sweat glands go into high gear. Unfortunately, it usually takes a year or two for a preteen or even a young teen to notice and, until then, she will smell like a goat.
It’s true that an 11-year-old will usually wash her face without being told, but she doesn’t see any reason to wash the back of her neck. And if you ask her to use a deodorant, she’ll either forget what you said or she’ll spray her shirt with Febreze and think that this is enough. Your stepdaughter is simply at an age when she doesn’t think that she smells as bad or looks as raggedy as you do.
However, since many sensory receptors are located in the skin, and since she has always said that it hurts to brush her hair, she may have sensory processing disorder. If that’s the case, the drops that fall from a shower head could feel like sharp little darts to her and the brush that someone pulls through her hair may hurt her scalp.
Occupational therapy can get rid of these sensory problems but if these are her only signs of SPD, you’ll probably find that bribery is quicker and cheaper and kinder, too, as long as you stop asking this beautiful child if she took a shower recently or changed her underwear. The embarrassment that these questions might cause could lead to a serious estrangement between you when she’s a little older, for hygiene is an intensely personal choice.
Your stepdaughter does need an occasional reminder to clean up her act, of course, but it would be better if you said “bath time” rather than “shower time,” since she likes a bath better than a shower, and if you gave her some bubble bath to lure her into the tub, some conditioner to make it easier to brush her hair, some deodorant to keep the goatish smell away and a few pairs of cute panties so she will want to change them more often.
You also might treat your stepdaughter to an occasional manicure, but choose a salon where there’s a stylist who likes young people and who would be willing to teach her some pain-free ways to wash and brush her hair. She’ll complain all the while, of course, but vanity should triumph when she decides to grow up, which will probably happen in a year or so.
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