What’s that smell? Using the olfactory sense in parenting children.

parenting sensory
girl sitting on grass smelling white petaled flower

“Mum, why do you smell of Mark and Jenny?” demanded my 7-year-old as I stood, bleary eyed, just awake, outside his bedroom at 6.30am.  

“Eh? What?” 

“You smell of them Mum…why?”

I had sat and chatted with our friends the previous evening in our living room, slept as normal and it was now first thing the next morning. Our young son could still detect their scent on me from a distance of 6ft. I was astounded at the sensitivity of his olfactory sense and the power of the associations it made with him. It is easy to dismiss smell as somehow less impactful than sight or hearing. However we all know how powerful scent associations are with events or memories in our minds. My grandmother always smelled of TCP and even now the smell of it is a powerful association with her. Scent also affects our current mood and state of mind. Just think of the scent of flowers on the breeze on a summer’s evening, or freshly baked bread. So how can we best approach this from a sensory perspective when parenting or caring for others?  

Practically speaking, we can notice which scents cause our loved ones distress, and which are helpful or pleasant. It is important not to make assumptions. Scents which we associate with being beautifully fragrant and wonderful may be perceived as just unpleasant by others. I love the scent of flowers. My children really don’t at all. I know this because we tried it out one day and noted our responses.  

If your loved one becomes distressed or upset and it isn’t obvious why, it might be a smell that upset them – be curious and ask them about it.  

If a smell is distressing, then accept that as part of how your loved one is. The brain doesn’t process smell in the same way as other senses – the information goes straight to the limbic part of the brain, so it is difficult to change or modify associations or responses to smells because the brain doesn’t really process or analyse the smell, it just responds straight away. Unpleasant smells can cause real distress, from simple dislike, to headache, to feelings of nausea, so take your loved one’s distress seriously rather than dismissing it. There are some scents which are detectable by some and not others, so be prepared for your loved one to complain about a scent which you can’t detect at all.  

There are some practical ways to solve the problem of distressing smells. You can either remove it, or disguise it. Removal might mean improving ventilation in the room, or choosing a different detergent or cleaning spray for your home, or altering your journey to avoid the smelly factory on the way to school. Have a look at the contents of anything you spray in the house, for instance furniture polish or air freshener spray, and notice what it contains. It may be that it is causing headaches or feelings of being just a bit unwell.

If you can’t remove it, then you can probably disguise it. Essential oils are good for this – a few drops on a tissue that can be held to the nose can help. Essential oil dispensers strategically around the house are also good, as are herbs growing near the front door that can be brushed/rubbed with fingers on the way in or out of the house. You can make home-made air fresheners which can be sprayed to disguise a distressing smell, or sprayed onto clothes which smell wrong. The important thing is to involve your loved one in the choice of scents being used to disguise bad smells – ones that you might think are perfect for the job may not be right for them, so a shopping trip to a shop with tester pots may be the answer to this. A note of caution though. Many essential oils are poisonous if swallowed, so make sure children are never left alone with the bottles and that they are stored safely away. Don’t put more than a few drops on any item you give them to hold to their nose, or on anything they could chew or lick.  

There are also many ways to use scents positively to help your child or loved one.  Your own personal body scent will be very comforting and reassuring (yes, this really is true!). If they are struggling to sleep without you, sometimes giving them a t-shirt you have worn for a day to cuddle up to can help. If they are going away on a sleepover, you can also do this. Suddenly changing your personal scent, for instance by buying a new strongly scented deodorant, can be confusing for children especially.  

Sometimes, some people find essential oils regulating if they are really distressed – but this is a matter of trial and error for everyone. For instance, our son finds the scent of rosemary very calming, and smelling some will sometimes prevent a serious meltdown. However this won’t be the case for everyone, as we all have unique sensory thumbprints.

If your child has a cold or cough and is struggling to sleep, a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil under their pillow can help to clear their airways. Lavender essential oil can be rubbed directly onto the skin on the wrists, so your child can smell the calming scent through the days if they get stressed. Lavender or chamomile in the bath is also very calming after a stressful day. If you are a keen gardener, you could try planting a chamomile lawn to walk on, with lavender bushes around it as well. You can also get your loved one involved in the kitchen helping you sort out spices and dried herbs – you can test them together and find out which you enjoy and which you really don’t. Make a note of the ones most enjoyed and try to do some cooking together involving these ones. Stay curious, creative and accepting, and enjoy exploring together how to use the olfactory sense so you can all flourish and delight in life together.

Please do feedback on your experiences with using the olfactory sense during the Wednesday Q&A sessions so that we can all learn together and share good ideas.


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