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How Dirty is Too Dirty?

By Daniel Champer, LCPC, Intermountain Clinical Manager of School Based Services

A quick internet search of the phrase “mushroom cloud” reveals that the technical definition of the phenomena is “a distinctive pyro-cumulus mushroom-shaped cloud of debris and usually condensed water vapor resulting from a large explosion.” The phrase will also conjure up frightening descriptions related to 1950’s nuclear trials and WWII documentaries. The aforementioned imagery is pretty universal. Yet, for anybody who has interacted with an adolescent using any of their five senses, I believe that my definition is much more appropriate. I believe that a mushroom cloud is actually the phenomena created when unwashed bodies, raging hormones, and bad attitudes interact with copious amounts of body spray or perfume.

Most teenagers smell. And for those that don’t, it’s probably a safe bet that their dens, I mean bedrooms, do. The perfume industry generates about 30 billion dollars yearly on a global scale.  Why?  Because most teenagers smell. So, the real question becomes:  How smelly is too smelly? How messy is too messy? How pimply is too pimply? And then, what in the name of Mr. Clean do I do about it?

The Merriam-Webster definition of hygiene is as follows: “The conditions or practices (as of cleanliness) conducive to health.” Hygiene is an integral part of health for all individuals. It is especially important for adolescents and young adults as it is directly related to physical health, mental health, and social health. We often think of poor hygiene as a condition in and of itself, yet the reality is that poor hygiene is often one of the earliest signs that something isn’t quite right in the life of a youth.

While it may be a slight over exaggeration to state that all teenagers are gross, hygiene does tend to deteriorate during this development stage. Developmental factors such as limit testing and individuation mesh poorly with increased body hair, hyperactive sweat glands, and several gender specific physical developments. Poor impulse control and underdeveloped judgment directly correlates to eight dirty glasses on a nightstand and a pile of dirty laundry a grizzly bear could hibernate under. So, if these teenaged tendencies are somewhat normal, then how do we know when that young person in our life is just “too dirty?” Trust your senses.

Use your sense of sight. Observe your teenager in a variety of settings. Evaluate if your child’s hygiene is similar to that of other same age peers. Make sure to notice if hygiene habits change for the worse. Note instances in which your teenager takes a personal inventory of his or her hygiene, (every kid gets caught smelling their armpits at some point, and that’s actually a good thing).

Use your sense of smell. This one isn’t too hard. All teenagers will have an off day, but make sure to notice if a young person consistently presents as malodorous. Also, check in with other trusted adults to see if they share a similar experience.

Use your sense of hearing. Pay attention to what the young people in your life say. Do they talk negatively about themselves? Do they express a desire to be closer to same age peers in both socially and romantic ways but just can’t seem to do so? Does the shower turn on regularly? Adolescents tend to experience shame and embarrassment in relation to hygiene. Listen to see if the teen in your life expresses an interest in keeping themselves clean and presenting themselves as attractive.

Use your sense of touch. Check for consistently unwashed and oily skin. On second thought, it’s probably better to use your sense of sight for this one. Evaluate an adolescent’s need and desire for physical closeness. Poor hygiene can often be a sign that something else may not be right in the life of an adolescent. This shift is also often accompanied by an attempt to isolate and withdraw from relationships and individuals with whom they were previously close.

Use your sense of taste. Actually, never mind. Don’t do that.  That’s just gross.

What do you do if your teen’s dirty is too dirty? Check in with them. Have a conversation around hygiene and health in general. Discuss the need and the process for achieving good hygiene. Normalize the difficulties that teens face in keeping their bodies clean. Make sure to ask the hard questions about suicide and drug use. Check in about their mental health. Ask questions about their social health. Also, be sure to talk with other trusted adults, such as teachers and coaches who regularly interact with your child. If you think there may be something else going on, make sure to seek professional medical or mental health treatment.

If we as adults use personal hygiene to help determine the mental and physical health of the young people of our community, then someday we can transition from using adjectives such as messy, smelly, and dirty to healthy, happy, and wise.

Daniel Champer is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who currently serves as the clinical manager of School Based Services for Intermountain in Helena.  Daniel provides clinical leadership and oversight to teams of mental health professionals who provide therapeutic services in public school settings in the Helena area.



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