How to get your child to brush their teeth – a psychologist’s perspective

I’m fairly sure we have all had times when our lovely little person does not want to do what we as parents think that they should. It could be not wearing what we think they should wear, not eating what we think they should eat, not sleeping when or where we think they should, the list is endless. Today let’s think about how to get your child to brush their teeth.

I’m going to make the assumption, as you are reading this blog that as adults we know the importance of good oral hygiene. As parents we strive to do the best for our children and if we think that something is in their best interest, then we usually go to great lengths to make it happen. The problem is that this can sometimes become a battleground and can cause both us and our children anxiety and stress. There are some simple strategies we can use to try and encourage our children to do things such as brushing their teeth which they may be reluctant to do.

1. Routine

As a parent, routine is your best friend. Children need routine to feel safe. It helps them to know that there are boundaries and that things are predictable. As a parent putting a routine in place for your child helps them to see you as a safe and reliable person. Pick a time to clean their teeth, and do this every day – maybe after they are dressed and before you go downstairs and then after or before the bath.

2. Role models

As parents we are role models for our children and tooth brushing is another opportunity for you to model a skill for your child. Kids want to be grown up and they want to be independent. By showing them how you clean your teeth (at the same time every day and without fussing) then they see that it is not only something which everybody does but also something that their hero (you!) does, and who wouldn’t want to be like their hero? Try letting them brush your teeth and then you brush theirs.

3. Reinforcement

Whether it is a dance, a high five, a sticker or an extra story, children learn through positive reinforcement. Point out to your child the things that they are doing well and praise or reward them for it. No matter how much fussing there was or kicking or screaming, if they opened their mouth and let you brush for 5 seconds let them know that this was exactly the right thing to have done and go over the top – straight away, kids need immediate gratification! Pick up on the positives and leave the negatives alone and your child will start to understand what gets them that very important positive praise and attention from you.

4. Independence

If your child is old enough, give them some of the responsibility for tooth brushing. You could let them pick their own toothpaste or toothbrush or let them have a go at their teeth and then you finish off. Although I have said how important routine is offer them the choice of before or after bath or before or after face washing. Letting your child do some of the teeth cleaning can also help, feeling like they are doing something to themselves rather than having it done to them can make them feel much more in control of the situation and so less likely to object to it.

5. Think sensory

Children’s mouths can be sensitive places, and it’s usually somewhere they like to be in charge of – ever tried putting your finger in a child’s mouth, ouch! It might be helpful for some children to think about the tooth brushing experience from a sensory perspective. Is the toothpaste too strong or smelly? Is the toothbrush too spiky? Is the water you put on the brush too cold? Talking to a child who is old and able enough to answer some of these questions could lead to an understanding about things which are unpleasant about teeth brushing and which can easily be resolved.

6. Talking

Talk to your child about the importance of tooth brushing and oral hygiene. We teach children about what would happen if they didn’t cross the road safely or if they touched something hot, why not teach them about what happens if we don’t clean our teeth- in an age appropriate way of course! Kids love to learn so read books, watch programmes, play games all about teeth and why we need to keep them healthy. If they understand why they are much more inclined to do it.

7. Anxiety

Parent anxiety impacts upon child behaviour negatively. If your child senses that you are worried or stressed about the tooth bushing ritual then they too will likely become stressed or worried about it. Try and stay as calm as possible (on the inside and out) about tooth brushing. This will reduce the likelihood that your child will become anxious about tooth brushing.

8. Move on

Tooth brushing might be a nightmare and it might upset you and make you cross that they won’t do it without a fuss but it is only 2 minutes of your day. Don’t hold grudges. Smile, say well done and move on with your day.

Post Author: Emma

1 thought on “How to get your child to brush their teeth – a psychologist’s perspective

    Marian Greally

    (August 26, 2015 - 1:01 pm)

    Sound advice, and we would advocate encouraging parents to persevere with this vitally important aspect of a child’s dental-care and dental health development.

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