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Short Version: My son's teenage friend stinks of cat urine. How can I help without hurting him?

Long Version:

My question is similar to this one, except I'm not friends with the parents who own the home.

My 14 year old son has made a new friend at school starting about 6 months ago. His friend (call him Tom) is a boy also 14. Tom's family moved to our city and bought a house 8 or 9 months ago. Tom and my son both enjoy playing card and board games and sometimes get together at our local library to play.

Tom has come over to our house a few times and each time he smells worse than the time before. 6 months ago he smelled mildly unpleasant and I just assumed he needed a shower. Yesterday he came over and he smelled VERY strongly of old cat urine. The weather was nice so we opened all the windows and managed.

My wife and I stopped by Tom's house about 5 months ago. We saw a few cats and the house smelled somewhat of cat urine. I guess that the house must be getting progressively worse over time.

My wife and I don't want Tom in our house in his current state. We also don't want our son in Tom's house. Our son hasn't mentioned Tom's smell but I'm sure he must have noticed.

It might be possible that this family isn't aware that their house/clothes stink.

My Goals:

  1. I feel bad for Tom and don't want to hurt his feelings.
  2. Tom seems like a good kid and I don't want to split up the friendship with my son.
  3. I don't want Tom to stink both for my sake and for his sake.

What's the best way to meet these goals?

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    I think the goal here could use some narrowing: Is this about interaction with Tom, with his parents, with your son? What should answers focus on, to prevent them being all over the place? You said something about Tom no longer visiting you, and your son not visiting Tom, in the list of goals, where would that be prioritized? – Tinkeringbell Apr 8 at 13:31
  • @Tinkeringbell: I'm not sure who I should interact with at this point. I don't know if it's proper for me to talk to a 14 year old about this. As the situation stands, Tom won't be coming to our house and our son won't go to his house. I don't mind if they meet up at school or the library. – James Apr 8 at 13:43
  • Does Tom already know the reason he's no longer welcome at your house? Does your son? What did you tell them, to make sure they won't meet up at each other's houses anymore? – Tinkeringbell Apr 8 at 13:58
  • @Tinkeringbell: Currently neither of them know that they will not be visiting each others' houses. My wife and I have not talked to either of them. When they want to meet up my wife and Tom's mom text one another to schedule the visit. We live far enough apart that a car ride is required. – James Apr 8 at 14:05
  • Are you sure it's because they have cats? Or could it be body odour / bad hygiene? – OldPadawan Apr 8 at 14:13
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This is really difficult because the person(s) with whom you need to have a conversation is Tom's parent(s). As a 14-year-old, Tom may have some idea that he smells but he is not really in a place to do much about that if his parents allow their whole house to stink. Tom might be a good friend of your sons, but before you embark on any course of action I would ask yourself if you know his parents well enough to be able to have this kind of conversation with them.

I am basing my answer on an experience of my own - in 1997 we had a French student come to stay with my family for 2 weeks whilst on work experience in the UK. She smelled terribly of body odour, so bad that she left a trail through the house as she walked. You could actually smell where she had been and estimate the path she took. Obviously, this was due to poor washing of her body, but it was exacerbated by the fact she was not washing her clothes properly either - instead of doing proper laundry or asking for help doing to while staying with us, she had been washing her clothes in the bathroom in nothing but water and then allowing them to drip dry in her room. We addressed this problem by approaching her, not about her own body odour, but about the odour of her clothes in her room. She took this on board rather well and improved all round, and I feel this is because we did not offend her personally by saying she smelled, but logically she came to her own conclusion that her clothes smelled because she did.

Therefore I would suggest you play this smell down in a similar way by addressing it as a "cat odour" on Tom's clothes, rather than go straight in and say "your house stinks of cat urine".

Perhaps the next time you return Tom home you could ask:

Do you mind me asking if you own a cat?

(A little disingenuous if you already know this. If the cat is there when you go or you have seen it on a previous visit you could instead say "I see you own a cat")

Then go on to say:

I noticed that Tom's clothes had a bit of an odour and I was concerned that something had happened, but if you have a cat that explains it.

By saying that Tom's clothes smell and not Tom himself it softens the blow somewhat as you are not saying "your son stinks". Likewise by saying that you were concerned something had happened to him you are showing you care about him and that it might have been an "accident" of some kind. Ultimately though you are planting a seed in their mind that the smell of their cat is noticeable upon their clothes outside of their house. What they then do with that information is really out of your control. If they have some dignity they may well clean up a bit. Unfortunately, though, some people are oblivious to smells and just have no understanding of cleanliness.

Are your sons at school together? If they are then a fallback option might be to mention it to their school, and see if they want to tackle it with Tom's parents.

If you are really concerned that Tom is living in squalor then there may be an authority you can report this to. I know this may not achieve all of your stated goals and is not exactly an interpersonal solution but I would feel remiss not to mention this while giving advice about a child in a possible neglect case.

  • Thanks for your answer. I don't really know Tom's parents and don't relish the thought of having a conversation. Yes, they are at school together and I LOVE your suggestion to talk to someone at the school! I'll talk to my wife about one of us calling the school nurse and see if the school is prepared for this sort of problem. – James Apr 8 at 13:40

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