By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
In many families, it can be extremely challenging figuring out how to get your child to brush their teeth.
He or she may be getting cavities, the dentist is complaining, but your child simply does not want to brush. It has become a battle of wills and everyone is losing.
When children are 1, they don’t brush at all, and when they are 25 they will probably brush every day. The question is how to get from here to there. The answer is gradually! Your child has to start brushing not only at the age that his or her teeth need it, but at the age when he or she can emotionally handle the responsibility.
When considering how to get your child to brush their teeth, we need to remember that when we put too much pressure on our children to brush too early, it becomes a stressful event that they resist.
Your child may learn to hate brushing as he or she associates it with the displeasure of being coerced!
Children can be forced to brush their teeth for years, but since they have no internal motivation to keep brushing, they will abandon the practice when they get older. Therefore, in order to encourage lifelong habits, you need to encourage your child gently and gradually to brush. By being kind and gentle with your child, you create a positive association between brushing and the pleasure he or she gets from the parent-child relationship. When your child feels close to you and when you fulfill his or her emotional needs on a regular basis, he or she is more naturally compliant with your requests.
In addition, a rewards system can be used when considering how to get your child to brush their teeth.
For example, you might say, “I see that it’s challenging for you to brush your teeth, so I am going to help make it easier for you by letting you watch a video after you brush.” Don’t say, “Brush your teeth or no videos.” Or, you may give your child a small prize if you don’t mind shopping often for toys. By using a reward, instead of the threat of punishment, you foster a more positive attitude around brushing that your child can maintain as he or she grows older.
Teaching Good Brushing Habits Is A Marathon, Not a Sprint
After a child gets his or her first cavity, some parents decide, “That’s it, he will brush his teeth twice a day every day from now on!” This is an unrealistic expectation, however, and too sudden for a child to emotionally handle. Ideally, if your child isn’t brushing, we need to start out slow by having him or her brush every once in a while. We then increase to once a week for a while, then three time a week. Finally, try to have your child brush every day. Remember that it’s ok to let your child slide sometimes and not brush, especially when he or she is tired or frustrated.
But, the matter may have gotten to the point that it is a major battle to get him or her to brush. While it can be difficult, you may need to lose the battle in order to win the war. Do you want your child to brush from age 5-12 but then never again, or do you prefer that he or she brushes on and off until 12 but every day thereafter for the rest of his or her life? If you force your child to brush against his or her will, he or she may stop brushing as soon as you are not there to enforce the rule. But, by being flexible and allowing your child to have a say in his or her routine, you foster a habit of brushing he or she will carry for the rest of his or her life. Therefore, allow your child to win the battle of wills by not asking him or her to brush for one month. By taking a step back, you allow the resentment your child is feeling to dissipate. Then, begin by gently asking him or her to brush. Be patient if he or she sometimes refuses. I have seen this approach work with some stubborn, angry children! You may say, “A month! His teeth are going to rot out of his head!” However, the truth is that cavities take months and years to develop, and this approach should have your child brushing before new cavities can form.
Your Child Can Enjoy Brushing
Remember, your child is more likely to comply with your requests if your parent-child relationship is warm and strong. Be gentle, tolerant and patient with your child. Offer flexibility, kindness and forgiveness. Tough love just doesn’t work anymore. Reduce the number of commands you give your child. Try to be less controlling and critical. Overlook minor misbehaviors and avoid shouting and reprimands.
Please bear in mind that the principles I share here represent a parenting ideal, and I don’t expect anyone to fulfill them perfectly. Therefore, be patient with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
With patience and the right approach, you can learn how to get your child to brush their teeth much more regularly.
Feel free to peruse the many parenting ideas contained in this blog, the specialties on this website, or download one of my informative free reports. If you have a child who is going through challenges and would like professional guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may give me a call at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!