My 15-year-old daughter has zero sense of personal hygiene. She currently has about a dozen used sanitary towels dropped on the floor, with food wrappers and rubbish. I have to nag her to bathe. She wears knickers several days in a row. I went in to her room and the stink turned my stomach. She’s looking at her tablet, oblivious to how disgusting and smelly it is.

She’s not depressed. She’s perfectly sociable at school and at home. I cannot wrap my head around how she’s so content to be to so disgusting. I am ashamed, especially given how many times I have gently spoken to her, nagged and/or screamed at her. She’s content to live in squalor. She tells me she doesn’t care.

Please advise. I am embarrassed.

So, first some questions. When did this start? Are you sure your daughter isn’t depressed? This could be a classic case of a cry for help without asking for it. I’m daily astounded by the pressures on young people these days, so I’d make very sure she isn’t struggling.

I went to UKCP registered family psychotherapist Nicola McCarry who asked what your daughter was like when friends come round? Does she tidy her room when they do? Peer pressure, and wanting to look good in front of your friends, is strong at this age. If your daughter does clean up for friends then that is a good sign that she understands about standards of cleanliness: “If she doesn’t [tidy up], then it’s more worrying,” because it could mean your daughter may not “care” about things in a much wider sense than just her room.

Presuming your daughter isn’t depressed then McCarry wondered if the messy room wasn’t being used to express something else: “Given you say she’s healthy and sociable I wonder if this could be a chosen arena in teenager rebellion, a deliberate provocation in an area that she knows matters to you.”

You don’t mention a partner or support. You also don’t mention anything else about your daughter or what she’s like in the rest of the house, so I’m wondering what else is going on for you two.

I think you need to step away from your daughter’s room. When you’re both calm I would set out some parameters such as “what you do in your room [up to whatever point you agree] is up to you.” But then you really need to respect your half of this and not admonish her about her room or indeed go in there. My children’s rooms are theirs. I don’t interfere in them unless they ask me to and I knock before entering. We all need spaces to be ourselves in.

Have some rules such as clothes will be cleaned if you put them in the laundry basket etc, but otherwise could you stay out of her room? Are you able to unhitch your mothering from her room?

“I know it’s really hard,” said McCarry, “when your child isn’t following standards you’ve raised them with, remember it’s not a personal failure even though it may feel like one.”

McCarry suggested “trying to step away from the battle and seeing it as winning or losing. Don’t lose your relationship with your daughter over this.”

She urges you to try to increase positive interactions so you have some reserves to draw on when difficult conversations need to be had: “Try to take the emotion out of it.” What do you both do that’s fun? How did you connect when she was younger?

“Try saying to your daughter that you’d like to talk to her about changing how you both communicate,” suggests McCarry “and acknowledge that you’ve not managed to find the right tone.” Some will think it’s pandering, but if you value your relationship with your daughter – and you must do as you’ve written in – then this is a hill worth climbing. Communication is everything. If your daughter knows she can talk to you and you can remain calm and are prepared to listen to her then the chances of her coming to you are increased.

You might be surprised at the result. And you don’t need to open up these channels by talking about cleanliness. I’d advise more general, less heated topics first. Make her feel safe and not defensive – it’s from this position we feel able to open up.

For advice on teenage issues and parenting support see familylives.org.uk

Every week, Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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