It’s not uncommon for smaller children to resist turning off a video game or picking up their toys to take a bathtime before bed, but in the event that a child displays a persistent and extreme fear of bathing, they present a psychological condition known as ablutophobia, a cleaning phobia related to water, bathrooms, and hygiene. While this condition is not uncommon in children, it can also present in adults and is more likely to affect grown women than men. Whenever a person presents with ablutophobia, whether child or adult, they will require counselling and therapy in order to overcome their fear of bathing and be able to practice proper hygiene; if left untreated it may worsen.
“Abulation” is a rarely used word in the English dictionary, more often referring to a religious washing than a normal bathing, but it provides the stem and definition of the condition. Any person who experiences an intense fear of bathing, not simply a reluctance to bathe as a cranky child might exhibit but a true clean phobia, can be diagnosed with the condition. Symptoms include shortness of breath, feelings of dread in the context of bathing, rapid heartbeat, shaking limbs, and going to extremes in order to avoid bathing.
Like many phobias, there is no one explanation for why children (and, sometimes, adults) come down with ablutophobia. They may have negative experiences in the bathtub that provoke an unconcious fear of using the shower; they may be afraid of drowning in the water; they may believe that taking a bath will harm their body in some way. Other times, a childhood punishment that involved water or cleaning, even if not in the bathroom, can result in shower phobia years later. In the event that parents utilize bathing as a form of punishment for wrongdoing, children can begin to associate taking baths with having done something wrong, and be extremely reluctant to provoke the association.
Treating The Condition
Many phobias are irrational in one way or another: a fear of spiders, for instance, is manifest in many people despite the fact that only a handful of people are killed by spider bites each year — in fact, it’s been ten years in the United States since the last death from black widow bite. Nevertheless, ablutophobia and any other phobia cannot be easily forced away by an insistent parent, as this will lead to worsening of the fear due to the association with negativity. Nor can a parent effectively help their child overcome the fear by promising and giving rewards, since this leads to confusion and indecision on behalf of the child who is unable to understand whether or not the bath should be a positive or negative experience. Instead, therapists must help children come to the root cause of their fear of bathing.
the first step is to find the underlying motivation for fear that results whenever a child comes in close contact with bathing or a hygienic situation. Once a psychologist or therapist is able to do so, they can help the child to understand how a bath is not a negative environment but rather a space for positivity, hygiene, and good self feelings. It may take weeks or even months for a child to open up about their fear of bathing and come to terms about the underlying reasons for their behavior, but this therapy has proven to be the most effective in treating children’ fears and reservations about bathing and showering.
Just because a child has complete therapy sessions does not mean that their fears are entirely vanquished, however. It’s quite possible (and fairly likely) that they may relapse into old fears when presented with the prospect of a bath outside of the “safe zone” of a therapist. Children need to understand that recovering from ablutophobia can be a very long process and that there is nothing bad or wrong with feeling nervous and anxious about taking a bath even after they have gone through therapy sessions. In fact, some therapists may recommend long-term cognitive therapy in order to change their thinking or perceptions of what is good and bad in their lives. Children with phobias or other behavioral issues need to understand how and why they can control their emotions and reactions, a process that can take an extended period of time in the event that they have had negative responses to their fears.
How Parents Can Help
In some cases a parent may not realize how their child developed ablutophobia and may feel overwhelmed about the prospect of ever getting their son or daughter to bathe and be clean again. The most important thing that a parent can do is not create a negative attitude about bathing and the child’s fear of bathing: insisting, scolding, or forcing the child to bathe will only continue their fear of the bathtub and aggravate their trepidation about the bathing experience. Parents should emphasize the positivity of bathing, demonstrating with themselves or with other children that the experience makes them happier, healthier, and has no negative ramifications. Parents should avoid becoming frustrated if their examples do not quickly change a child’s attitude, however, since children are strongly driven by emotion and it’s quite difficult for them to overcome a strong emotional pull in a short span of time.
Perhaps the greatest consequence of ablutophobia is the reception that a child will experience among other children at school. At a very young age, an unwashed child may not even stand out from the crowd of other children, but as they age and especially as they approach puberty, the idea of cleanliness and hygiene becomes far more important amongst their friends and fellow students. Parents can help their children be less conspicuous — that is to say, less smelly — by providing them with clean clothes and deodorant in order to help their ablutophobic child not be a social outcast amongst their friends at school. While some teachers may not understand the complexity of the condition, parents must also make every effort in order to ensure that teachers understand why their child is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of bathing, and that pointing it out or suggesting they change will only worsen the situation.
Searching For Solutions
Parents who have a child or children that appear to be ablutophobic and are unsure what steps to take should seek out a community support center or organization first and foremost. Since many of these organizations are staffed by volunteers, they are usually far less expensive than professional therapy and may be as effective. In the event that volunteer organizations cannot help, however, it is necessary to invest in a professional therapist who works with children or cognitive behaviors so that the ablutophobic child can begin to take steps down the road of recovery. Recommendations from friends and family about psychologists may not always be helpful, as different psychologists specialize in different areas. Unless you have recommendations of a specific behavioral therapist, it’s best to seek out a specific psychologist rather than a generic psychologist.