My 8-year-old won’t groom or care for herself


Q: My 8-year-old daughter resists and ignores most reminders and tips on grooming and self-care. She recently returned from sleepaway camp with two weeks of clean socks and underwear completely untouched. (“I couldn’t find them,” she protested, despite me having her help with packing and showing her where they were.) She will only brush her teeth thoroughly if I’m next to her, pointing out places she missed and reminding her for two minutes to focus on what the dentist said she needs to attend to. We’ve tried toothbrushing podcasts, smartwatch reminders and more. How can I support her independence and trust when this is a constant fight? Is this normal?

AT: It might not make you feel better to hear this, but grooming and self-care challenges are quite common and have not been made better by the pandemic. Not being around other children and not leaving the house, as well as moving directly from the bed to the computer, have resulted in plenty of kids losing their cleanliness routines. Also, many parents read this and nodded their heads: “Oh, this was my child. He never changed his clothes. It was so big!” These children grow up and manage to bathe and groom themselves properly.

First, we’re going to let the camp underwear debacle go. It’s in the past, we cannot change it, and the only reason to revisit it would be to shame your daughter. Good? Good. Moving on, you have clearly tried many techniques, and the situation isn’t all that bad. She brushes her teeth, albeit with you, but that’s more than some kids are doing.

Let’s look at your ultimate question: How can you support her independence and trust (from her to you) when this is a constant fight? You can’t. When there’s a constant fight about anything, but especially when it involves one’s personal space and body, it’s hard to have a healthy and positive connection. Chronic fighting, power struggles and coercion lead to a breakdown in trust, and, although the issue may have started as toothbrushing, it quickly becomes about autonomy and fights for power. I’m not trying to scare you; parents and children have frequent power struggles. This is a part of family life. What I’m talking about are the chronic issues that chip away at your connection.

You may be wondering whether you should allow your daughter’s teeth to rot and her clothes to remain filthy. No, we don’t want to go from one extreme to another. But take another route with her. Have a meeting and say, “Alice, I’ve noticed that we fight about your teeth and grooming, and I’m curious: What’s a better way to do this?” If you stay open and listen, you can have a true conversation with your daughter. She may say, “I just want you to leave me alone,” and from there, you can both find a compromise.

Trust me when I say: You will not be happy with the plan. A parent who has used toothbrushing podcasts is going to want more than two brushing days a week, which is what your daughter might choose to do, but you have to be willing to trust that she will eventually groom herself on her own. As development, hormones and time do their work, your daughter will decide, according to her own needs, when she will have to take her grooming more seriously. Otherwise, it’s a fool’s errand to think we can make someone else care about something the same way we do, and we’ll bring more struggles than they’re worth.

For now, work on co-creating a solution, and try to have more fun with it all. If she brushes her teeth with you and doesn’t seem to mind, which is phenomenal, do that every night and have a good time. Try to lay off the “you missed that tooth” comments, and just be together. Get silly toothbrushes, play music, wash your faces, floss (we had Flossy Friday in my house, and it was the best we could do) and enjoy being with your daughter. Less focus on the doing, more focus on the being.

And please find doctors and dentists who, rather than pressure and shame, work with both of you to make the tone more flexible, easy and non-alarmist.

Although I don’t hear a lot of big, loud fights in the house, I would suggest picking up Ross Greene’s book “The Explosive Child.” The beauty of Greene’s model is that he focuses on the problem, not the behavior, and the parent and child learn to become a team. I think this book will be an important and eye-opening way to approach helping you foster independence while making sure teeth and clothing are clean-ish. Good luck.

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