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Parenting expert Alyson Schafer shares tips on how to tackle toothbrush resistance.
Little boy brushing his teeth.
Clover No.7 Photography via Getty Images
Little boy brushing his teeth.

With Halloween just days away, parents are well aware that gobs of sugar are about to be consumed by our children. But what if your kids regularly resists brushing their teeth? Adding more sugar to their diet will likely only fuel a bigger fight over oral hygiene in the coming weeks.

Let me offer some tips for getting kids to brush their teeth so you can allow them to indulge in their trick-or-treat candies fight-free this season.

Instead of forcing a toothbrush into your child’s mouth and potentially triggering a gag reflex – or worse, a kick in the shins – try this instead: simulate their desire to want to brush with a “when… then…” statement. It sounds like this:

When your teeth are brushed, then I’ll know it’s time to start tuck-in stories.

This implies that we have a schedule in our house. First we brush our teeth, then we read stories. I can’t make you brush your teeth, but I can keep to the schedule. If 7 pm is bedtime and you have not yet brushed, I will say good night in a pleasant tone, explaining there was simply no time left for stories.

In the morning, when they wake up with disgusting breath from refusing to brush the night before, you can repeat the approach with the morning schedule as soon as they request some juice or breakfast cereal that has sugar in it.

YES you many have a juice. When yesterday’s sugar bugs are brushed off your teeth, then I will know you are ready for more sugar today.

So much of the resistance to teeth brushing is children feeling manhandled. Try having your kids brush your teeth for a change and you’ll get a sense of how overtaken and powerless they feel.

To help reverse this, let your kids brush their own teeth first. Yes, they will do a poor job because they don’t have the motor skills to really be effective at this job until about the age of seven, but let them get their practice time in and feel a sense of agency and control over themselves and their body.

After they have brushed, you can do a round yourself, simply explaining you are the tooth inspector here to check their work. Then, with toothbrush in hand, scrub each tooth.

“Are there any germs on this tooth? Hmm no, none here. You got that little critter hiding back behind this molar, too! Where am I gonna find some plaque? Is there any on this front tooth? Gosh it looks like you got it all!”

Who doesn’t like hearing a compliment about their competency? Meanwhile, you’ve brushed their teeth as required.

Kids resist tooth brushing because they see it as a fight they want to win. Instead of getting more insistent and upset, try getting more silly and fun. Start cracking jokes and being lighthearted. Get a little tickle fight going or put some toothpaste on their nose. Stick a cotton ball up your own nose or dance a jig. Do whatever you fancy to break the tension and you’ll find your little resister starts to cooperate.

Why does this work? Because kids have dualistic thinking: you are either the enemy or the ally. If you are being a goofball, you must be an ally and so there is no battle to be won.

Yes, it’s ideal to brush your teeth before bed and after breakfast, but if your kids are in the habit of fighting with you at these times, shake up the routine. So long as they brush their teeth at least three times a day and are more cooperative, you are on your way. When the pattern of fighting over brushing stops, you can change the schedule back.

The end goal is to prevent our children from having cavities. Remember, you can also get rid of the plaque by using less traditional ways:

  • By eating natural “detergent foods” like apples, celery and carrots
  • Using an oral rinse
  • Flossing
  • Dental sticks
  • Putting toothpaste on your finger instead of a bristle brush

If you find these are more effective, be sure to get a professional cleaning more frequently.

For older children who require less supervision in the bathroom, simply keep the association between freedoms and responsibilities together. Explain that they need to prove they can take care of their oral hygiene properly if the would like to eat teeth-harming foods like Halloween candy, sugary drinks and so on.

If they are not caring for their teeth properly, the candy can be confiscated and pop will not be purchased for the household until they resume proper brushing. If you care for your teeth, you get candy. If you don’t, then no candy. Seems simple enough, right? But it only works if you can implement this without getting harsh. Stay matter of fact. If you go all Judge Judy they will look for a way to get back at you.


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