“My child likes to hold the toothbrush but screams when I brush for her”. Rest assured, parents, you are not alone! This behavior starts for most children by 12 months, and may last until a child is 3 or 4 (longer if brushing is not a routine task at home). This is not an indication that brushing hurts, or that a child is in pain. This is a normal and appropriate manifestation of a child trying to control their situation. Children become masters of this very early on. There are a few things a parent can keep in mind when dealing with brushing associated tantrums.
First, remember that brushing your child’s teeth does not hurt him or her, and not brushing will cause more pain in the future. Try to think about toothbrushing the way you think about other things that have to be done, whether a child likes it or not. For example, many children do not like to be placed and buckled into their car seats. We do it anyway because we know it is for their own safety, (and doesn’t hurt). Other children do not like having to hold their parents’ hand in parking lots or crowded places, but that is something that was non-negotiable and for their own safety. Toothbrushing should be thought of the same way; something that must be done, and will not cause psychological trauma later in life because we as parents put our foot down.
Second, we have learned from educators that when given a choice, children feel more in control of their situation and are more likely to do what is asked of them. Parents can and should control the choices, however. For example, you can say, “Mom is going to help you brush, but would you like me to brush your top teeth or your bottom teeth first?” Or you can say, “It’s time to brush our teeth, would you like to do it in my bathroom or yours?” Allowing a child to choose a song to listen to while brushing, or reading an extra book if you only have to ask once to brush are things you can try. This takes time and practice, but soon it will become second nature. When the option to say “no” is not there, kids will often be willing to do just what we are asking.
For the 18-month old, or 2-year old who hates brushing, it is perfectly okay and recommended to force the toothbrushing routine. Doing this consistently will teach a child that mom or dad make the rules, and that they are still ok after the brushing is over. Giving a big hug and kiss after brushing reassures a child that you love and care for them, even when they are mad. This in turn, teaches coping skills and establishes the comfort of routines.