I was having coffee with a friend recently when I asked her about her teenage son. She leaned conspiratorially across the table, eyes darting guiltily around the café, and said, "He stinks, I can't stand it."
I laughed, assuming she was joking – or at least exaggerating – but she doubled down.
"I honestly can't take it," she said. "I walk down the hallway and I can smell his stench coming from his room before I even know if he's home or not."
My friend told me she's tried to be subtle and ask him if he's showered. She's made sure he has plenty of deodorant, and has bought him expensive cologne for his birthday. She's even commented on other men that they smell great, and that it's something that she thinks is a wonderful quality.
"I wouldn't even mind so much for myself," he said, "but if I can smell it, surely everyone else can too. I want to help him take care of it before he starts getting teased at school, but I don't know how to do it without hurting his feelings."
Psychologist and mum of a teen boy herself Dr Jo Lukins says these conversations can be awkward but necessary.
"Having a conversation with anyone about their hygiene can be challenging," she says. "As parents and the adult in the conversation with our teens, we worry about their reaction because we know how challenged we may feel on the receiving end of the same conversation.
"It is, however, important to remember that teens can seemingly be blissfully unaware of their odour. As a result, people habituate to the smell of your odour."
Dr Lukins says our teens are going through a lot of changes, and their smell is just another one.
"Bodily changes and the onset of puberty mean that the odours of teens can change noticeably," she says.
"Many teenagers sweat more in those years due to changes in sweat glands; within teenagers, different glands in the arms and groin area become active; sweat is less of the culprit (it doesn't smell) – rather, the bacteria on our skin and clothing is often the culprit.
"Things that can help include regular showers, deodorants, and fabrics within clothing (cotton over polyester)."
As for how to broach the subject with your stinky teen, Dr Lukins suggests remembering why you're having the conversation in the first place:
- You care about your teen.
- You value personal hygiene.
- You want to save them from potential embarrassment with their peers/others, and
- They smell. You don't want to put up with it!
To soften the blow, Dr Lukins suggests having the conversation in a safe environment.
"Perhaps at home and not in front of siblings, unless you want to make this a family conversation about everyone," she says. "Don't single one person out within the household.
"Acknowledge that this is a sensitive conversation and that you want to have it because you think it's important for them to be aware.
"You don't need to overemphasise the point, and I would recommend sharing observations."
Dr Lukins also says that if we can normalise the experience and share our own stories and strategies, that can be helpful.
"For example, 'I leave a can of deodorant in my gym bag so I can freshen up before I leave the gym. If you like, we can get you a couple, so you've got one with you when you need it.', she says."
Encouraging independence and self regulation can help as well, with teens keen to be the adults they almost are. That means allowing them to choose their own products and teaching them habits like putting smelly clothes straight in the laundry rather than on their bedroom floor.
And although the conversation might feel uncomfortable, Dr Lukins says it probably won't be the toughest conversation we have with our teens.
"Remember that in having this conversation, you are also teaching them how to have difficult conversations," she says. You are letting them know that no topic is too difficult if it's managed well and the person is respected.
"The other HUGE benefit is that your household may not pong so much!"