Help! My Child Won’t Stop Washing His Hands

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Like most little boys, my 6-year-old son is messy. He tracks mud in the house, gets finger paint on the couch, and is basically a whirlwind of chaos. Until recently, it’s been a struggle to get him to wash his hands or take a bath. I come from a family of neat freaks, so sometimes I’m stricter with him than the situation deserves.

One day, my son came home after swimming in the creek down the road. When he grabbed a slice of pizza with his still-wet hands, my germaphobe alarm went off. I sat my son down and explained to him what germs were and how they could be on anything, even things that didn’t look dirty. I said he should always wash his hands so germs wouldn’t make him sick.

My boy always ignored my lectures before, but this time he took me seriously. Too seriously. Now he washes his hands after touching anything: his stuffed frog, the TV remote, even doorknobs! If he plays outside, he’ll wash his hands twice over. The skin on his knuckles is literally raw from all the washing. When the hand soap in his room ran out, he had an honest-to-goodness meltdown.

I have tried to explain that he doesn’t need to wash his hands ALL the time, just after using the bathroom or playing outside. My words didn’t help. He’s deathly afraid of getting sick. You’d think there was a plague going on from how anxious he gets.

I feel as if I’ve broken my boy, and I don’t know how to fix him. I had no idea my words would give him such a severe phobia. I’d take it all back if I could. Please tell me, how do I help my son? —Crisis of Cleanliness

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Dear Crisis,

I imagine that feeling as if you have “broken” your boy and not knowing how to “fix” him creates a tremendous amount of pain for you—regret and guilt were palpable as I read your question.

It’s hard for parents to know how something is going impact their children. You say your son usually ignores your lectures, so you had no idea he would react like this. You make the best decisions you can with the information you have at the time. Unfortunately, things go a bit awry sometimes. Try to be gentle with yourself and remember you were only trying to get him to be better about washing his hands, which is a reasonable and responsible parenting goal.

A therapist could be instrumental in helping your son identify his feelings and develop coping strategies.

I wonder if your son would be comforted by the fact exposure to some germs is good for developing the immune system. Perhaps you two could spend a little time reviewing reputable websites that cover this concept. Maybe you could even schedule an appointment with his pediatrician to talk about it. You seem to have his attention on this issue, so perhaps he would be interested in learning more.

It’s also possible that, in time, the issue will take care of itself. Children go through phases. Sometimes a behavior or fear that arises with great intensity just fades out.

If educating him on germs—not just the danger they pose, but the value they hold—and/or time don’t resolve the issue, it might be helpful to partner with a therapist to further explore his feelings. If he has a heightened sense of anxiety in general, it’s possible this issue has simply become the focus. A therapist could be instrumental in helping your son identify his feelings and develop coping strategies.

However you proceed, I hope you will remember that your intention was simply to get him to wash his hands more—a good thing. You couldn’t have anticipated such a dramatic response, especially given his propensity for ignoring your lectures. Issues sometimes arise despite parents’ best efforts. The fact you are reaching out for help and trying to work with your son to move past this shows what a loving and dedicated parent you are.

Best wishes,

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • Ellie

    Ellie

    June 4th, 2018 at 9:58 AM

    This doesn’t make you a bad parent. You were trying to make him more cleanliness focused and there was a trip wire in his brain that made him take it too far. He is probably wired for anxiety (and you probably are too since it can be genetic).

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