They say “choose your battles wisely,” and getting teeth brushed in most houses is one many of us struggle with. But with up to 90 percent of school-age children worldwide now shown to have tooth decay, this is one fight that we can’t ignore.
But getting teeth clean doesn’t have to mean daily yelling, bribing or forced brushing. Play is a surprisingly effective way to get the job done peacefully.
Why Do Kids Hate Brushing Their Teeth?
There could be numerous reasons why kids dislike brushing their teeth. Some might feel invaded by the prod of the toothbrush, or shy away from the taste of toothpaste. Others don’t feel like carrying out yet another order on the nightly list: take a bath, get changed, choose a book.
Or maybe they just want to choose the book and snuggle up.
Night time itself can present problems that grate. Long hours of alone time. In the dark. Monsters. Nightmares. Bed-wetting. With those worries a concern, it’s easy to see why children might view brushing teeth as just another step towards nighttime doom and gloom. In the day it can be a marker towards the separation that occurs through daycare or school, or even the business of the day.
Many resist simply because they don’t understand a parent’s concern for teeth to be clean.
Reasons like this put teeth-brushing high on the list of common parenting challenges, with regular struggles to get to the bathroom or near a sink, children running away, or faces turned away with mouths clenched against the toothbrush.
These scenarios happen in many bathrooms daily, and they lead parents to a full stop. As tensions mount, morning after morning, night after night, even bringing up the idea of teeth-brushing becomes a chore.
What now? We ask. Should we bother?
Or we force: “Let’s just get this done now.”
Take Tooth-Brush Time from Tantrums To Laughter
We don’t need to know why a child resists tooth-brushing, but we do know that we need to keep teeth clean. The best way to bridge the gap is using a child’s own language: Laughter and play.
“When you get laughter going it helps to release tensions around a certain issue,” says Hand in Hand Parenting instructor Kristen Volk in this video about using play to brush teeth. “Laughter also helps children feel close and connected to us, which in turn helps their minds function well,” she says. “It helps dissolves fear and anxiety around things, and build’s a child’s emotional safety and confidence.”
Kristen, along with Instructors and parents using Hand in Hand’s Playlistening tool have seen many successes using play to take teeth-brushing from a time of tantrums and fun.
Five Good Strategies To Use for Great Play
Good play lifts the mood and helps puts kids in control, but it is even more effective with these keys in place, which make sure you are all having good clean fun.
A child running away from teeth-brushing is speaking to you in the best way he knows how. He wants connection first and he tells you by saying things like “Chase me, catch me.” Use this as a guiding principle when you set out to play. View the game as an opportunity to increase your connection, not only as a way to get the job done.
Follow the Laughter:
What may be funny to you, might not be to your child. If you try some of these games and they don’t work, move through the list to the next idea. Follow his lead. If he hides the toothbrush, for example, turn it into a game of “find the toothbrush.” Follow the laughter and giggles as a sign things are progressing well.
Play for Play:
Plan on play taking some time. Try to enjoy the game. You may need to schedule some extra time because tooth-brushing like this moves from being a task to being a game. And kids love games!
Set a Limit When You Need To:
If after a good while you have played but still your child refuses, you may need to propose the limit. Hold your child close, look into their eyes, and simply say, “It’s time to brush now.” You might offer to help, or ask them how they’d like it done. If they ask to play more take it as a sign that they love your closeness, and tell them they’ll be time to play more tomorrow.
Kids do love play and they may revel in these times to begin with, so much so you might wonder how to stop. Promising regular play comforts a child and tells them they can trust that this isn’t the end of fun. If exhaustion sets in, or you don’t feel like playing, you may be bumping up against a trigger or stressor.
Try these playful responses when your child fights against getting their teeth brushed.
1 Brush Your Body:
In this go-to game from Kristen Volk parents take the toothbrush, get in close and tells their child it’s time to brush teeth. But then they pretend to scrub the child’s ears / elbows / toes / nose until they say, “No! My teeth, my teeth!” and show you how.
2 Where’s the Dentist?
Pick up a toothbrush and say, “Ew! I don’t want to brush my teeth. I hope there’s not a dentist around here that will make me,” and playfully look at your child. This play invitation offers a child the chance to brush your teeth. They love taking on the more powerful role and giving the direction.
3 Brush The Stuffies:
Pretend to clean the mouths of all your child’s favorite toys with humorful responses. Grumpy toys that spit, complain and throw the toothbrush away often bring out the giggles. They also show your child that he isn’t the only one in the world who dislikes teeth-brushing. Offer your child a turn brushing a toy’s teeth, and then ask which toy would like to brush your child’s!
4 Super Silly Toothbrush:
Tell your child it’s time to brush teeth and reach for the toothbrush. Have it zoom and flip all over the place. Pretend you cannot get it near your child’s face and try and force it. Have it skim a nose or a bare belly, inch past and ear or nose. Challenge your child to catch the toothbrush and help it do it’s job.
5 Guess the Song:
Hand in Hand parent Gail Bath has this great playful tip: Brush your own teeth while humming or singing a song and have your child guess it, and then throw open the challenge. What song will your child choose to sing while brushing? Warning: You might find you all brush multiple times!
6 Toothbrush Tales:
Make your child’s toothbrush the star of a goofy, adventure-packed story, says Kristen Volk, but only tell it when a child is brushing. Give the toothbrush a name and a voice and make Toothpaste, Floss or Mouthwash trusty sidekicks and give them a storyline. Trips to space? Super powers? Meeting princesses? Anything that gets a giggle.
7 What is This Thing?
That’s the question that instructor Roma Norriss asks her kids when they don’t want to brush. She examines the brush, puzzled, and tries out various other uses. “A teeny tiny hairbrush?” “A too-big nostril scrubber?” When your child explains the real use, you can still ‘get it wrong,’ by attempting to squeeze lemon juice, soap or tabasco on it.
8 Where is Your Toothbrush?
Point at everything in the bathroom but the toothbrush and ask, “Where is your toothbrush?” says Hand in Hand parent Sapna Swaly. Take things further by actually hiding the toothbrush in some crazy places.
9 Get the Germies:
Got a kid that loves shoot ’em up? Play ‘Get the Germies.’ Challenge him to squash those tooth-decayers one by one, and narrate in real time his score. Do an overall check at the end and declare the final number.
10 Race to the Bathroom:
Lots of Hand in Hand parents have success with a “race you to the bathroom,” game, and you can take it up a notch by inviting your child to help you create an obstacle race that you scramble through on the way to the bathroom (and maybe back to the bedroom) after tooth-brushing time is up.
Play is one way to get closer to your child another is Special Time. Find out more about how to build lasting trust with your child in this free chapter on special time from our book Listen: Five Simple Ways to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges.
source: “Top 10 Games To Help Tackle Teeth-Brushing Battles” handinhandparenting.org Hand In Hand Parenting, Web April 27th 2018.
For more articles on dental health, see our main blog page.