My College:
Dear Adina

What Should I Do About My Smelly Son?

Adina Glickman


Dear Adina,

We have a 20 and a 22 year old. This season has been so much more challenging than I ever knew to prepare myself for. A friend recently shared your resources with me and they have been incredibly helpful! So first of all, thank you!

Secondly, I would love any advice as to how to deal/not deal with our young adult whose hygiene is very lacking. We raised our sons to shower regularly (with soap lol), pick up their belongings, etc. Since one of our sons has entered young adult age, WOW, his hygiene habits are almost nonexistent. Any tips from your experts about this?


Dear Parent,

Yes, stinky offspring, no matter how much they warm our hearts, are nasally offensive. Enforcing basic requirements of hygiene are no different from enforcing any other basic requirements of having him live in your home. Your rules are your rules, and the nose knows what the nose wants.

If this is more of a "how do I tell him without hurting his feelings?" situation, being direct takes the least amount of time (and requires the least amount of nose-holding) and leaves no room for interpretation.

I would suggest something like, "I love you with all my mama/papa-bear heart, but that beautiful man body I gave life to smells bad bad bad. Go take a shower. Every day." He also may need some education around how and how often to wash clothes and sheets.

If this is more of a "how do I get him to follow through on bathing, etc." situation, then it's an issue of boundary and limit-setting. Personal boundaries are about protecting one's physical space and sense of safety and comfort.

An assault to the nostrils is just as unsettling as a body slam, and your nose is entitled to the same protection as the rest of you. You have a right to hold your son responsible for the invisible odor that extends past his personal space and into yours. Just because it's not visible doesn't mean he can pretend it's not there (even if he has gone nose-deaf to his own unique scent).

If his odor were a big neon sign that blared like a fog horn, you'd have every right to tell him to quiet that fog horn and turn off the neon while you're in the house. Identify the successful ways you've set limits and replicate those. Removal of privileges works for some parents, and finding incentives to help motivate developing a new habit works for others.

As a young adult, it doesn't have to be a secret that you're looking for a solution, and it's fine to recruit him to help solve it with you. It can also help to remind him that his ability to succeed in life will rely heavily on how he engages with other humans, and not repelling them with unclean body smells is one of the few things he can control.

Picking up one's room is a little less clear. The rule I enforced with my kids was that their rooms were their rooms, but they couldn't be death traps. No science experiments that used to be a sandwich growing under the bed, no sharp objects hiding under dirty towels. And when untidiness morphs into smelliness that wafts through the house, the same rules apply: you (the parent) get to call the shots on how smelly your house is allowed to be.

I do want to put a word in for staying alert as to whether your son's decline in hygiene is paired with other more worrisome things like being more withdrawn or feeling hopeless, which could mean he's struggling with some depression. It's not uncommon, when one feels immobilized by depression, to simply not have the energy to take a shower. He may even be aware of needing to improve his hygiene but feel too stuck to improve it. A good therapist will be able to help him with that.

Yours,

Adina Signature

Have a question? Ask Adina

Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching, which offers academic, life and career coaching to young adults. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at adinaglickman.com.

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