Parent: “Time to brush your teeth.”
Parent: “You don’t want to get cavities, do you?”
Child: “No brush!”
Parent: “Come on, let’s just get this done.”
At some point, most young children go on strike from tooth-brushing, clamping their jaws shut and refusing to let their parents come near them with the dreaded brush. There are many reasons why toddlers and preschool-age children sometimes resist having their teeth brushed. Considering the situation from your child’s perspective and identifying the specific reasons for resistance can help parents remove the roadblock and get kids back on track with good dental hygiene.
A sensory impediment to brushing is the first possibility to investigate. If your child cringes at the feeling of the brush on her teeth, it could be that her gums are tender as a result of a new tooth coming in. An over-the-counter numbing agent can provide a short-term fix. If your child tends to be hypersensitive as a rule (with a low threshold for many tastes, sounds and physical sensations), try wrapping your index finger in gauze and using that instead of the brush. Also consider an alternative toothpaste flavor and be sure to use the appropriate amount: the size of a grain of rice for children under the age of 3, and a pea-sized amount for children 3 to 6 years of age.
If, on the other hand, your child craves sensory stimulation, he may clamp down on the toothbrush with his teeth, in which case you can let him do so as soon as the top teeth are brushed and then do the same with the bottom teeth.
Self-care and independence
To avoid power struggles over tooth-brushing and other aspects of self-care (such as dressing and bathing), remind yourself that what appears to be a display of defiance is often just a poorly expressed desire for self-sufficiency.
Although parents should begin training children in the skill of brushing their teeth by the age of 2, most kids won’t master the task until they are closer to 7. The trick is to provide them with the sense that they are in charge of their own mouths while ensuring that their teeth actually get clean.
The concept of teamwork can help you gradually ease yourself out of the job and give your child the feeling of self-sufficiency he craves. Be his partner, but let him decide who does what: “Do you want to brush the top or the bottom? The front or the back?” You can also give him the impression that he is handling it all on his own, while you merely provide the “finishing touch” or “the extra sparkle.”
Monkey see, monkey do
Children may not listen to what their parents say, but they closely watch what we do. Model good dental habits by letting your child watch you brush and floss your teeth. Talk yourself through the steps, or make up a song about them (“This is the way I brush my front teeth/back teeth/molars … ”). Be sure to demonstrate the immediate benefits of brushing by admiring your pearly whites in the mirror and commenting on how good it feels to have clean teeth.
The most common reason for toddlers and preschool-age children to resist tooth-brushing is that it is boring. Young kids live in the moment and are focused on having fun — right now. Tooth-brushing (like most things) will go more quickly and pleasantly with a young child if you approach it as an opportunity for mutual playfulness. Bring out your silliest self in order to transform the task into a fun activity. The sense of connection and affection will make the entire morning or bedtime routine run more smoothly.
Manage your own expectations
With young children, it is more important to instill the habit of twice-daily brushing than to insist on perfect technique. Skill will come with practice. For now, just focus on developing the routine of morning and evening brushing as the healthy habit of a lifetime.
Robyn Des Roches is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) and a leader of PEP’s “Parenting Preschoolers” classes. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2 ½ to 18. This article was excerpted from an article that appeared in Washington Parent Magazine’s February 2017 issue. Read the full article here.
I am reminded of how much fun my son and I had searching for Thomas and Friends in his mouth when he was a preschooler, silly sound effects and all! I don’t remember the details exactly, but one engine was usually searching for or chasing another one, high and low, front and back, sometimes in close pursuit, then losing the trail, then…until…however it ended, the teeth ended up clean in process!
Use a safe kids’ step tool to help them reach the sink. Choose one that is self-retracting so that when your kids are done using the sink, the step stool automatically retracts underneath the sink and out of adults’ way.
Thanks for the idea, Steven. Haven’t heard of a self-retracting step stool — what a cool invention! Tools to help kids take care of themselves are always welcome.
Cheers, The PEP Team