"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
August 7, 2014
My Son Stinks
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

Help! My handsome, tall, smart young adult son smells! Not just a little but a lot. Probably because his personal hygiene is not so great. He has been known to wear the same shirt and socks for several days, and he doesn’t shower often enough for an active young male.

Suggestions?

Answer:

You should tell your son he smells bad. And if you can identify why he smells bad (no shower, dirty socks), you should tell him that, too.

In general, it is rude to tell a person that he is smelly, dirty or otherwise badly groomed. But when that person is a member of your immediate family or household, and especially if you are his parent, it is your duty to alert him to his offensive odor, even if he — or she — is an adult. Also, if he does not know, to teach him how to avoid the odor in the future.

Alerting your son to his offensive smell is different from criticizing other features of his appearance or life because the smell of an unwashed body and dirty clothes is not a matter of style or personal opinion. Some people are more or less bothered by it, perhaps, but no one likes it.

The conversation with your son should be private, to avoid embarrassment, and direct. “Jim,” you might say, “Your body odor is pretty bad. I have noticed that you don’t shower and wear clean clothes every day. You need to start.”

Then, if his response is anything other than, “Yeah, sorry, I’ve been staying up late and I haven’t had time to shower in the morning before work,” or some other acknowledgement that he knows what to do but has failed to do it, you can give him concrete steps to take.

You might suggest certain brands of soap, shampoo, deodorant and detergent; that he wash his whites, towels and sheets in warm water and frequently; that he try plain deodorant instead of antiperspirant (don’t ask me why this works; it just does, sometimes); and that he wash his shirts and socks after each wearing. You might even give him some of these products and items.

This conversation could be excruciating for you or Jim or both, depending on how used your family is to discussing bodily functions. You may be tempted to use gentle words, like not-so-fresh, stale or musty.

You may also feel tempted to give an elaborate explanation about why a person should not smell bad (e.g. women and employers don’t like it) or to embroider the conversation with constant expressions of what a terrific young man he is.

But I would opt instead for the uncomfortable but direct route that boils down to, “Son, you smell terrible. You need to shower more and wear clean clothes.” It will be clearer and the conversation will end sooner. And if you are a gentle-words sort of person, your son may be shocked into action by your blunt but kind delivery.

Do not fold this conversation into any larger discussion of your son’s life, prospects, behavior, job, education, girlfriend, fashion sense, weight, nutrition or fitness level. Remember that even if you think you are encouraging him to meet his potential when you bring up these topics, he is likely to hear criticism and nagging. So keep the smell issue separate. It is a matter of hygiene, not potential.

A person who knows he smells bad, has the power not to smell bad, but continues to remain unwashed has problems beyond his smell.

Which is why it is important for you to discover if something else is going on with your son. Ask questions, even if they seem embarrassing.

His bad smell could be a laundry problem, such as a buildup of antiperspirant on his clothing. It could be that he has run out of money for soap, shampoo and the Laundromat. Or that his deodorant and soap are not effective for his body chemistry. Those problems are easily solved with money and instruction.

But his bad smell could also be medical. And if it is, he should see a doctor. He may need your assistance to navigate the process of finding the right doctor, making appointments, making sure the doctor takes his insurance (and bills as a physician’s office, not as a hospital) and determining the fee if he doesn’t have insurance.

He might want suggestions for which pharmacy to use and how to ask (if appropriate) for generic drugs. Your son is not a spoiled perpetual adolescent if he lacks these skills: They come from experience, and many young people have not had to learn them yet.

You should also consider a mental health explanation for his poor hygiene, especially if it has developed recently and is a departure from his past habits. Do some research and see if his behavior matches symptoms for depression or another mental illness. If it does, consult a professional immediately.

Finally, I am interested to know why you have not talked to him about this already. Are you trying to respect his autonomy? That’s fine, but a general respect for autonomy is not a reason to withhold important information such as “you smell bad.” Is he sensitive to any criticism, no matter how objective?

Again, that is not a reason to withhold important information from him. Do you just feel, deep inside, that you should keep your mouth shut? Then do.

But perhaps you are nervous about this conversation because you have nagged him too much and used up all of your personal capital with him. Talk to him anyway. Most people would want to know if they smelled bad, and they’d rather hear it from someone close to them before they embarrassed themselves in public. Even if your son is offended by the conversation, it may prompt him to clean himself up.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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