Going playful with toothbrushing challenges is a fantastic way to ease light fears. But sometimes issues go deeper, and it can be appropriate to bring a warm limit - that toothbrushing needs to be done - and then wait and listen as our child shares their big feelings with us.
Our fears are stored in our limbic (emotional) brain, and when we are stuck in fear we can't get our 'thinking brain' online - so no matter how much we reason with our frightened children about the importance of toothbrushing, they literally can't take it on board in that moment. They just can't think! When this happens, we need to connect with our children at an emotional level, rather than a rational one, so we provide safety and warmth by being with them, and a warm limit for them to push against. At this point, they are able to release the feelings which are blocking their clear thinking, so that they can get back to their happy, cooperative selves. We know that children are doing the best they can in any given moment, and that they would clean their teeth if they could, and Staylistening through their big feelings is one way we can help them. Here's how we used Staylistening to help our own son with his toothbrushing fears.
Our youngest (2 1/2 years at the time of writing), is generally quite a cheerful, easy-going little boy, but he has never really liked having his teeth brushed - some days are easier than others, and if he is distracted you can sometimes get in and do it without him really noticing. But we really wanted to tackle the root of the problem - even though we didn't have a clue what that was! He often lets us start brushing his teeth (for a few seconds), but then refuses to let us do any more, and this is what happened on this occasion.
I decided to go with it, instead of distracting him (or forcing the issue, as I'm not happy to say I had sometimes done in the past in desperation), so when he clamped his mouth shut after a few seconds of brushing, I gently and warmly said 'We need to brush your teeth'. As he was already sitting in my lap, I gently kept him there as he cried hard, told me he didn't want to do his teeth, and pushed against me with all his strength. He could have easily wiggled away under my arms, but he chose to stay and push and cry. I reassured him occasionally, saying things like 'You're safe' 'Nothing is going to hurt you' and 'I won't leave you'. Every so often I would bring the toothbrush near to his mouth and again say 'We need to do your teeth' - this would inevitably bring on fresh waves of tears and protests! At one point, he clutched his head with both hands, right on top, and looked very fearful. He did this for a few seconds and was really wailing hard. I had some thoughts in my mind about his birth (he was delivered by ventouse at the last moment as he was really struggling, and then intubated almost immediately due to breathing difficulties). I said a few times 'Nothing is going to hurt your head' and 'Nothing is going to hurt your mouth'. After a few more minutes of really full on crying and protesting that something was going to hurt him, he seemed to settle a bit, and allowed me to gradually bring the toothbrush close enough to touch his lips. I said again 'Nothing is going to hurt your mouth'. He then said something quietly like 'It's going to be gentle', and opened his mouth to let me gently brush a few of his teeth for a short while. He then seemed to feel like that was enough brushing, and he had another big cry, until he asked for Daddy to brush his teeth. He then sat on Daddy's lap, cuddled in, let him brush his teeth with no problem, and then came over to give me a big cuddle. It felt amazing to have really listened to what he had to show us, and not to have rushed him, or forced him to get his teeth done.
And since listening to our son on this occasion, I am happy to report that our son finds toothbrushing much less challenging.
A few more links to help with this frustratingly common issue!:
- Special Time helps with toothbrushing
- Using the tools to help with toothbrushing
- Playlistening helps the evening routine
- How to make brushing teeth fun
- Laughter eases the way to brushing teeth
- Special Time helps with teethbrushing
- Responsive parenting and autism: facing the toothbrushing challenge with fun and laughter
- What to say during Staylistening - how to listen when your child is having big emotions