Q&A: Getting Him to Brush is a Nightly Battle

Note from the editor: It is important to us that TNF expose you to both sides of the coin on parenting issues. Your child may not fit the personality described by one writer but s/he may very well be like another. Each week in this Q & A segment we will juxtapose two parenting philosophies –one as proposed by Julie & Holly (more of an unconditional parenting style), and the other by Joe Newman, who provides a more transactional parenting approach.


We recently brought my toddler son to the dentist for the first time, and she told us that he needed to start brushing at least once a day. Unfortunately, it’s turned our bedtime routine into a battle of wills. My son refuses to open his mouth, and when I insist on sticking the toothbrush in his mouth, he ends up kicking and screaming. I’ve tried using different brushes and toothpastes, but he just flat-out refuses. Bedtime with my son used to be my favorite part of the day, but now it’s a nightmare because the tooth brushing struggle ruins everything else. Can you help?

Answer by Julie Gamberg & Holly Kretschmar (Parents and Educators)

There’s no magic bullet, but there are many tips and tricks that you can choose from to see what works. The start of the tooth brushing routine often coincides with a the beginning of a child’s desire to be autonomous and have more control over his body, so from a developmental standpoint, it’s normal that your son is fighting against your insistence that he clean his teeth. He’s experimenting with asserting independence, which includes what he eats, when and where he pees/poops, and whether he’ll let a foreign object (like a toothbrush) into his mouth. Most likely, your toddler is either still teething or has just endured a painful teething process, so it makes sense that he’s reluctant to let anyone poke and pry in this tender area. Overall, focus on good nutrition, avoid turning the dispute into a power struggle, give your child some control, and use play to make the interaction fun.

Below are some specific ideas to try:

* Give him some control. Let him choose the toothbrush and put on the toothpaste. Let him brush his teeth first – then give you a turn at it, or let him brush your teeth, and then switch.

* Lean on the “cool” factor. Try an electric toothbrush or a lightup timer toothbrush, which flashes for one minute so kids know when they’re done. If you try an electric brush, let your son play with it before putting it in his mouth so he won’t be afraid.

* Use distractions. Show your son movies or photos, letting him hold the camera (or phone).

* Make it playful: Invent a game by going “on safari” – pretend to hunt for animals hiding in your son’s mouth. Or, listen to / make up silly tooth brushing songs. (Raffi has one.)

* Engage him in problem solving with role-play. Encourage your son to brush his toy animals’ teeth, and as you pretend to be his toy, provide some resistance so that your son has to coach his animal through the experience.

* Create social pressure. Watch movies of kids brushing on YouTube. Or, create movies of kids your son knows. Find pictures (online) of kids brushing and tape them to the bathroom mirror. As you brush with your son, make up stories about the kids.

* De-emphasize tooth brushing. Create a poster showing each step in the bedtime routine. Then, during the bedtime routine, ask him to tell you which step comes next.

* Outsource the job. Have a favorite, trusted puppet hold the toothbrush, talk in a silly voice, and brush his teeth. Also, consider bringing your son to a dentist who can talk to him about the importance of brushing.

* Take a shortcut until this phase passes. Consider letting your son take complete control of brushing; if he chomps on a brush for a few minutes, even if it’s during story time, he’ll do some good, and giving him independence should buy you permission to take over when story time is through. Establishing the habit of brushing is the most important element of the routine. You can also try “brushing” with a washcloth until your son is more comfortable with a toothbrush. When you wipe his face after meals, swipe the inside of his mouth too. As a last resort, you can try wiping them while he’s asleep.

Good nutrition is extremely important to dental health, so if you have to press the pause button on brushing for a month, focus your energy on limiting your son’s sugar intake. Then, come back to some of these strategies after a break. It’s important to avoid using physical force during the tooth brushing process, because this will prolong the difficult period. If you keep a positive attitude and communicate firm expectations without engaging in a power struggle, your son will maintain trust in you and pass through this phase more quickly. Toddlers cycle through strong autonomy phases; if you can defuse the tension and help your son feel powerful, he’ll learn to enjoy brushing his teeth.

Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

The first thing to understand is that the struggle you’re having around your toddler refusing to brush his teeth is ultimately about much more than his teeth.  The psychological transition he’s going through at this stage requires him to challenge you to a test of wills.  If he is to successfully make this transition it is also required that you win this struggle.

He is emerging into an awareness of his independence and separation from you and the anxiety this creates drives him to test his power against yours.  So while there are many approaches that may smooth over, avoid, or negotiate a way around this test of wills, all of these will not only postpone dealing with, but will also exacerbate, the root issue.  Click here to go to my blog that details the psychology of toddlers.

The key is to assert your will in the area you do control while acknowledging his ability to make his own choices.

When it’s time for him to brush his teeth, bring him to the bathroom and let him know that neither of you will leave until he has finished brushing his teeth.

Don’t try to force him to brush.  Rather, let him know he’s in control of certain decisions while you are in control of others.

“I can’t force you to brush your teeth (his control).  But we’re not going to leave the bathroom until you’ve decided to brush (your control).”

“I can help you if you want or you can do it by yourself, but you need to brush your teeth for one-minute (or whatever time your dentist recommends) before we leave the bathroom.”

Then wait and allow boredom to do its work.  There should be no toys available in the bathroom and absolutely nothing to do.  Additionally, you need to be boring as well.  Don’t engage him in conversation or cuddling; rather, allow him to be bored.

You can allow him to have a tantrum so long as he isn’t hitting you or destroying anything. (If he is hitting or destroying you should hold him until he has become calm enough to control himself.)

No matter how upset he becomes, keep your tone as amicable, empathetic, and friendly as possible.

“If you need to have a tantrum, that’s okay, I’ll wait till you’re finished.”

Don’t use yelling, anger, threats, or negotiating to motivate him.  Allow the boredom to motivate.

Resist the urge to try and cajole or convince him to brush his teeth.  Instead wait until he wants to leave and tell him, “I’d love to let you leave, but I can’t let you leave until you’ve finished brushing your teeth.”

Every time your son directs his anger or frustration at you, redirect it to the choice he’s making.

“I can’t make you brush your teeth, but you can’t leave the bathroom until you do.”

In this way you avoid a situation were he feels negated in order for your need to be recognized.

However long this takes, it will take half as long the next night, half of that on the third, and soon he’ll be brushing his teeth without a struggle. Even if this takes an hour or more the first time you will be setting a precedent that will make all your boundary setting easier.  Furthermore, you’ll be relieving the anxiety that lies at the root of these tantrums, helping him to develop self-regulation skills, and facilitating his growth into someone who has the capacity to fully recognize the needs of himself and others.

Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists.  During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program.  His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.



[Photo Credit: Ernst Vikne]

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