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Practicing Good Hygiene

How To Instill Good Hygiene Habits That Will Last a Lifetime

Preteens are a blast to have around. Caught between childhood and the teen years, they are usually articulate, bright and still affectionate toward their family. Despite all that good, there is a dark side: cleanliness.

The most frustrating thing about preteens may be their hit-and-miss approach to personal hygiene. They think nothing of heading out to school with their hair styles perfect and their teeth unbrushed. They will go weeks showering every day, and then suddenly you have to fight to get them to wash their hands and faces.

As the mother of four, Heidi Shelton-Jenck of Sandy, Utah, understands that frustration all too well. Getting her two preteen sons to shower is an ongoing battle. "Neither of my boys cares much for showers or brushing their teeth," she says. "They take one every other night, but when it's the night for a shower, they try very hard to convince me that they just took one the night before."

Shelton-Jenck has the same problem with their hair. "My 11-year-old decided this year to grow his hair long," she says. "We got a '70s shag-type cut. All he has to do is get it wet with the spray bottle and shake it to make it look OK. He has to be reminded every day to do that before he goes to school!"

Why Is It so Hard?

Dr. Virginia Shiller, a licensed clinical psychologist in New Haven, Conn., and the author of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting (American Psychological Association, 2003), believes that many preteens are simply not developmentally ready to be consistent in their grooming habits. "Many preteens are not yet focused on physical appearance (in some ways parents should perhaps be grateful about this; come adolescence, they will obsessively shower and groom!), nor do they appreciate the health implications of good hygiene," she says. "Other things simply assume higher priority. And if they're in the middle of an activity, they resent being interrupted for something they see as the parent's whim."

Dr. Shiller says it's very easy to let personal hygiene become a power struggle between the preteen and the parent. "Preteens often experience their parents' repeated reminders as nagging, and they may drag their feet because they dislike feeling controlled by parents," she says. "This can contribute to an unpleasant family dynamic."

Why Preteens Need to Learn

If preteens are reluctant to learn good hygiene habits and may not be ready to take this part of their lives on by themselves, why is it so important that they do so? Dr. Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist and medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Health and Family Services, says that good hygiene is critical for the preteen.

"It is important for preteens to learn good hygiene habits for several reasons," he says. "First of all, hygiene is important for all overall health. Good hygiene is something that will come into play for the rest of one's life, so it's important to get started early on in adopting a good routine that will benefit a preteen for a lifetime. It's also important to practice good hygiene, as there are social implications and judgments made about those with bad personal hygiene. We all know that preteens can be extremely critical of each other, so taking care of oneself will be one less thing to worry about."

Another reason that could impact your preteen is that skin care goes a long way to keeping teenage acne at a minimum. Preteens are susceptible to acne and other skin issues as puberty begins and their bodies change. "At this age, if good skin care is put into practice, there is a chance that acne and other skin conditions can be kept in check and breakouts can be less severe," Dr. Sophy says.

"In addition, a good regimen in terms of skin can keep skin clear, and that will make for preteens to feel better about themselves. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that some people will never have a blemish, while others – no matter what they do – will have problem skin. As a parent, it is important to make sure that if your child does have more sensitive skin, that they know it's not their fault and seek out the appropriate treatment methods."

What to Teach

According to Dr. Sophy, if hygiene is ignored, a person can run into all sorts of problems that can have a negative impact on many facets of their lives, both physically and socially. This is a powerful tool in helping your preteen see the value of good hygiene habits. "When it starts sticking is when children or teens are aware of the way others perceive them, and that a lack of good hygiene can cause a negative reaction toward someone," he says. "It also starts sticking when a negative experience occurs, such as learning that a child has a cavity. This will prompt them to realize the importance of brushing their teeth and regular flossing."

Dr. Kim McClanahan, a licensed clinical psychologist in the adolescent medicine division at University of Kentucky College of Medicine, says that rewards for good hygiene habits may work in the short term, but in the long run, the goal is for the child to do it on their own.

"Tangible motivators external to the child, such as money or other items or rewards, can be important in teaching or reinforcing a child's behavior, although they should be used in a discriminating fashion," she says. "If a child is given a tangible motivator every time she or he completes a behavior that is expected and required, the child may learn that he or she gets 'paid' for normal, expected behaviors, thus inhibiting the child's ability to internalize and self-regulate the behaviors, because the motivation for performing the behaviors has been kept external to the child."

The ultimate goal is to have preteens internally regulate their own grooming behaviors over time. So tangible motivators might be best used on occasion when behaviors have been accomplished over a period of time, such as a reward for having done three out of five grooming behaviors correctly for a week.

Dr. McClanahan also says that verbal encouragement and praise from the parent is more important for the child to receive in terms of helping the child internalize the ability and desire to groom correctly. "Verbal encouragement and praise helps the child's self-esteem and is not external to the child, like money or other rewards like that," she says.

"Praise should not be excessive, because excessive praise can sometimes be perceived by the child as pressure or even as insincere. Finally, a parent should not assume that praise and encouragement is only needed once when it comes to learning good hygiene skills. A parent must pay attention and notice when the child is grooming correctly. Praise is then in order to reinforce the child's sense of mastery and self-esteem."

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