What To Do When Your ADHD Child Has Poor Hygiene

by Yafa Crane Luria


What to do when your ADHD child has poor hygiene habits

A lot of kids with ADHD aren’t great at personal hygiene. Poor hygiene is so frustrating and confusing: what parent wants their kid to be “the smelly kid,” to quote the above scene from “Big Daddy?”

On the surface, it’s true that it’s about not wanting to brush his teeth, comb her hair, wipe well, or take a shower, but what lies beneath this surface response?

The most obvious answer, when raising an ADHD child, is that the task takes too long, expects children to stand still (or sit still), or takes too much focus.

Top 15 excuses I’ve heard for poor personal hygiene

  1. It takes too long
  2. I can’t sit/stand still
  3. It doesn’t matter
  4. Nobody cares
  5. I don’t smell yet
  6. I don’t smell bad enough yet
  7. I’m not going out so no one will smell me
  8. The bathroom is smelly/dirty and I don’t like being in there
  9. Baby brother/sister doesn’t have to take a bath every day so why should I?
  10. It’s cold getting into the shower
  11. It’s cold getting out of the shower
  12. I forgot
  13. I don’t have time
  14. The toothpaste tastes bad
  15. It hurts

Top 5 real reasons for poor personal hygiene

As a parent, it takes great patience and understanding when your ADHD child has poor hygiene habits. It seems inexplicable! As you know, people with ADHD can get stuck in their heads. We can also get stuck in a feeling, a negative believe or judgment about someone or something, an activity, or an event. And on top of all this, we can be very sensitive to our environments. I liken people with ADHD to seismographs that measure Earth’s bumps and quakes. When something isn’t feeling balanced (and that can mean different things to different people), we’re off balance as a response and we want to make it right. Most of the time your child refuses to do something it’s because they’re feeling off-balance.

Let’s look at that more carefully:

  1. It IS hard to stand or sit still when you have ADHD, especially when you’re focused on some upcoming event or activity or some significant (to your child) event or activity was interrupted. Interruptions are painful. We’re stomping or flapping or whining or bouncing because we want to get back to the activity that was interrupted.
  2. I notice that, at times, I have a faster (or slower) inner speed than other people. For instance, my stepdaughter will say, “Come on,” when I’m walking slowly. I don’t even realize that I’m walking slowly. On the other hand, my brain works fast and if it takes people a long time to make a choice or answer a question, I may start fidgeting. You may do things at a different speed than your child and it may make them anxious enough to start fidgeting or push back and say, “NO!”
  3. People say we’re lazy because we don’t want to be bothered with mundane stuff like tooth-brushing or hair-combing. In fact, the opposite may be true. Come on, how fun are those, really? I purposely have a haircut that is easy to take care of. Some days all I have to do is run my hand through my hair and it’s good to go. Let’s not pretend that these activities are fun. People with ADHD run on an inner agenda and we don’t want to be late for OUR activities, the ones we’ve planned in our heads that may have nothing to do with a real-life agenda.
  4. We’re sensitive to the environment. Something that you want us to do may include louder than comfortable noises, bad smells, too hot, too cold, too hard, too soft, too rough, too smooth, and stuff that doesn’t look so pretty. This kind of thing is really troubling and can be painful in some way, particularly if we have sensory issues as well. Or these activities may call too much attention to us, like passing gas does. For all the attention-seeking behaviors, there are times we don’t want the attention!
  5. Some hygiene stuff is unpleasant. To me, tooth brushing is disgusting. So are some other hygiene activities. I do them because I care about what people think of me (a good healthy dose!) While I’m doing these activities I do have a reaction. Usually I’m talking to myself in my head. “OMG this is so gross. Yuck. God, please let this be over.” Some kids with ADHD just don’t care what people think about them and, with all of the above rolled up into one big reason, they just don’t see the need for careful personal hygiene.

5 things parents can do to make the hygiene thing easier for you and your kids

  1. Set a timer to count how long it will take to do a particular task. Seeing how long it will take answers the question, “How long is it gonna take?” LOL
  2. Let them choose from two possibilities when they will do each activity. For example, “Do you want to brush your teeth before or after breakfast?” (some kids are comforted when the taste of the food they just ate is still in their mouths). Or, “Do you want to brush your own hair on the way to school, or do you want me to brush it right now?” You may need to physically help them with the task. Don’t worry, it’s not forever.
  3. Have something pleasant available for them to do during a particular task. If they can dance or just rock back and forth, let them do that. Like have books, magazines, a tablet, coloring book, stuffed animal, puzzle or anything to soothe any negative feelings that might occur. Don’t worry if it’s “babyish.” Trust me, I’ve seen plenty of adults at weekend retreats carrying stuffed animals.
  4. Don’t aim for perfection. Aim for DONE!
  5. Use mishaps as good information. Ask them, “What goes through your head when you know it’s time to brush your teeth?” and then listen to them. Don’t talk, and don’t use negative language about it, like calling your kids “babies” or “dummies” or telling them that they’re “irritating” or “hopeless.” I wore diapers til I was 5 years old. I remember thinking, “It’s a long way from my butt to the water.” (Whatever that means, it scared me). I also remember wondering if the poop would touch me, would there be so much that it would fill the toilet and touch my butt, and that scared me too. I’ve always been smart and I wasn’t behind in school (no pun intended), I just had these inexplicable fears.

There is always a good reason for poor hygiene habits. It could be that your children or teens just can’t explain it well. Yet. Give them time to put it into words, gently coax some solutions from them (“How can I help you?”), and, if necessary, take them to a doctor or therapist for some support and direction.

xo, Yafa

Copyright 2017 Yafa Luria/Margit Crane All Rights Reserved


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Joan Jager November 15, 2015 at

This is the first I’ve even seen hygiene addressed about ADHD. It’s so fraught with negative judgement no one wants to admit to any problems. No one in my family noticed in childhood (except for smelly feet), and few complain now. Maybe they’re just too polite. Hope the tips above help you address the problem earlier for your child.
I do take care of brushing my teeth and washing my privates, but to this day, I struggle to take a complete shower. Too many steps, too cold (I have to turn up the heat and wait). By the time I shave, dry off, rub off dead skin and dry my hair, it’s been a long process and I’m beat. Lately, I’ve committed to a quick routine of washing one or two extra body parts daily trying to stave off being “smelly” and looking unkempt. It’s a step in the right direction, but still far from the norm.


Margit Crane Luria November 15, 2015 at

Thanks for your comment, Joan. I totally agree that certain grooming practices seem to take forever! I should have also mentioned the curiosity factor – How long can my nails get? What other ways are there to wear my hair? How long can I go til I smell like I’ve been living in the woods with wolves? You know, typical ADHD thinking!!!


susanne February 1, 2017 at

we took part in a 10 week adhd treatment study program at a local hospital with another 40 parents. Saturdays, the kids did a sports and social skills program, while parents had a parents group meeting with various experts and sharing time. When a parent brought up tooth brushing, it stuck out like a sore thumb as it was probably 1 of the things that pretty nearly everyone suffered with with their kids. The nurse leading the group laughed and while she had never seen a study on that, she said it was completely typical that nearly all parents had issues with this, very very common. We have made some progress with a kolibree toothbrush / app since.


Yafa Luria/Margit Crane February 1, 2017 at

Thanks for that info, Susanne. KOLIBREE toothbrush and app, is what she’s recommending, parents!


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