For most of us, the topic of puberty doesn’t evoke fond childhood memories. The word alone — puberty — conjures the need to stockpile zit cream and blare grunge music.
Maybe that’s just me.
As tough as the tween and teen years were, watching your kids experience them can be just as challenging, especially when it comes to the awkward topic of hygiene. That first whiff of change means bigger things are on the horizon, and approaching the next phase with a plan will make things easier for everyone. I asked some experienced parents for advice.
Prepare kids early
Adolescence arrives earlier than you might think. The average age of menstruation for girls is 12, according to Mayo Clinic research, and boys begin showing signs of puberty as early as 10, according to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The first conversation can be a struggle. “Convincing tweens that they smell bad is a big challenge for most parents,” says Deborah Gilboa, a doctor and mother of four boys. “That’s because the child’s brain makes that kiddo ignore their own smell in order to pay attention to what’s happening nearby. So when a tween says, ‘I don’t smell anything!’ they are telling the absolute truth.”
Gilboa says that bringing up the topic early on can temper resistance and embarrassment later on. “I’d suggest talking to all kids about these issues by age 9 at the latest —whether it’s an issue for that child at that age doesn’t matter — it will certainly be part of what they’re hearing about during social time by age 8 or 9, and getting to our kids before their peers do gives us much stronger communication patterns.”
If you’re feeling unsure about your message-delivery skills, some age-appropriate reading can get things moving. Gilboa recommends “Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys” and “The Care and Keeping of You” for girls, both published by the American Girl company.
Lead with sincerity
Acknowledging adolescence in our kids means letting go of their smallness, which comes with its own brand of grief. Although it may be tempting to mask your sadness with humor, even good-natured teasing can feel like an attack to a child already dealing with the embarrassment of recent changes. When having the body odor conversation, your tween "will likely laugh, want to walk away or feel uncomfortable, but you can validate those feelings,” says Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker and mom of four.
Kitley encourages parents to let their kids take the lead when it comes to expressing emotions to help them feel secure in what will become their new normal. “Lead with something about the importance of moving our bodies and nutrition, then transition into showering and body odor,” she says. “There’s a high likelihood they’ve seen either parent use deodorant, and you can suggest the two of you go and pick out something of their liking.”
Encourage self-care and personal choice
Adolescence is the beginning of our kids’ autonomy, and encouraging those first steps also means encouraging personal choice. Tweens are likely to feel more empowered in puberty if they’re allowed to choose their own hygiene products. For Jennifer (who asked to use her first name only to protect her children’s privacy), a California photographer and mom of two, this strategy, and a few reminders, worked well.
“For my son, who is 11, we spoke to him when he’d get in the car after school and he was stinky. We reminded him to use antibacterial soap for his pits while showering, and then we had him pick out his own deodorant at the drugstore,” she says. “Our daughter, who’s now 14, decided herself about two years ago that she needed deodorant. Again, we let her pick out what she wanted.”
The range of self-awareness varies with kids, but the message will sink in over time with a relaxed and informative tone. “We’re very mellow about this kind of stuff and just answer questions in a straightforward way,” Jennifer says. “I also mentioned that grooming is about self-care and not just vanity. It’s also about having pride in your body and how you take care of it.”
Don’t rely on the Internet
Technology has changed the way teens live, whether connecting with friends or finding information at lightning speed. As easy as book report research has become, don’t expect Google to give your child the full picture of adolescence. For Luz Claudio, a mom and professor of children’s environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, it’s about finding a balance. “I have used some of the information my daughter has viewed online as an opening for conversation,” she says, “but my opinion is that there’s no way that she could get useful information about how to care for her body because the information online is not specific enough for her.”
Another aspect of tweens sourcing sites such as YouTube is the monetization of content, something Claudio notes can be misleading. “The information my daughter sees related to this topic are videos from influencers. I have explained that many of those videos are sponsored by the products they promote, so the information can be skewed.”
If your kids prefer browsing to books, sites such as amaze.org are full of ad-free articles about hygiene, sexual orientation, gender and other health-related topics to help them ease into puberty at a self-guided pace.
Body odor in adolescence isn’t a new problem, but it can feel insurmountable as a concerned parent. Take a page from your childhood by considering what helped you during awkward times, and reach out to parents of older children for support. A little grunge music couldn’t hurt, either.
Sarah Szczypinski is a journalist living in Seattle. Find her on Twitter @SarahSz23.