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Your kid smells. Here's how to address it without making them feel bad about their body

Got a stinky kid? Here's how to handle it delicately. (Image: Jay Sprogell)
Got a stinky kid? Here's how to handle it delicately. (Image: Jay Sprogell)

Jaime pulled her 11-year-old son in for a hug, and her nose quickly started to itch.

“I got a whiff of an odor I never smelled before,” the mom of two says of her older child. “I know he’s getting older, but I was not expecting that.”

Jaime, a South Florida mom who prefers only her first name be used to protect her child’s identity, says she couldn’t help but immediately blurt out what she observed: Her son smelled funky. His response was one of shock and denial.

The often unpleasant scent of maturing quickly sneaks up on many parents and tweens. But how do you tell your preteen or teen they, ahem, stink without taking a shot at their confidence?

Caitlin Long is a certified holistic sex educator and head of curriculum at Sex Positive Families. They advise having the you-aren’t-smelling-so-fresh conversation in private so as to not embarrass your child in front of others.

Although they say the conversation may look different for each family, it should start with honesty. Acknowledge that this may be an uncomfortable conversation, but being uncomfortable is OK. Don’t start off making assumptions, but rather lead the conversation with questions and curiosity.

“If a child feels called out in a way that leads then to feel like it is about them as a person, that is a problem,” Long tells Yahoo Life. “If they begin to think that they themselves are stinky or something is wrong with them or their body, this may cause them to shut down and could negatively impact their self-esteem, relationship to their body and to you as the parents or caregiver.”

This is an opportunity to build safe and open communication between parents and children.

“If parents or caregivers want to be seen and understood as someone their child can trust to talk to about their body, it is important that they frame the conversation in a way that helps them understand that bodies smell sometimes to signal that there is a need,” Long says. “Just like when clothes smell, it’s a signal they need to be washed. Just like when our stomachs growl, it is a signal that there is a need to eat food.”

Sticking to the facts is the best way to address the issue, says Dr. Hina Talib, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and co-founder of Thread Health, a digital health service for teens and parents. Tweens and teens are usually self-conscious about their bodies already, she notes.

“You don’t want to make a teen feel badly about their body changing, which is a natural process,” Talib says.

She tells Yahoo Life this is a common topic patients and their parents bring up, and that body odor is actually one of the first signs of puberty.

“Having body odor and noticing it is a hallmark of starting puberty,” Talib says. “How we react to it, that can be something that has room for improvement so it doesn’t feel so contentious.”

Like Long, Talib suggests leading with curiosity to find solutions. For example, through a simple conversation you may find out your child is so tired when it's time for their morning shower, and that may be be better off showering in the evening. Or you may hear something you weren’t expecting.

“Sometimes when teens are very sad or anxious one of the things we do see is they have a hard time taking care of their bodies,” Talib says. “Make a plan on how they will take care of themselves and then check in once a week. Be a support, a cheerleader.”

It can also be helpful to share books, websites or YouTube videos that talk about the responsibility of good hygiene, whether that be regular bathing with soap and shampoo, wearing clean clothes or wearing deodorant. The whole process is easier if the practice of good hygiene is an expectation before it becomes an issue.

“When children are starting to bathe themselves independently, it’s important to have them practice taking care of their body by taking regular showers and using soap in their underarms even before they need it,” Talib says.

Any soap is better than no soap, although, exceptions should be made for sensitive skin. Deodorant also is a good option, however, Talib recommends saving antiperspirant for teens rather than tweens.

Talking with your child’s pediatrician is a good idea when coming up with a hygiene plan. It’s also important to include your child in whatever decisions are made.

“Let them be part of the solution [and decide] what they want to try next and how they want to solve this problem of how B.O. [body odor] is noticed,” Talib says.

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