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 one of our children with their toothbrushing fears.
Our child, who was 2 1/2 years old at the time, was generally quite a cheerful, easy-going little person, but they had never really liked having their teeth brushed - some days were easier than others, and if they were distracted you could sometimes get in and do it without them really noticing. But we really wanted to tackle the root of the problem - even though we didn't have a clue what that was! At that time, our child often let us start brushing their teeth (for a few seconds), but then refused to let us do any more, and this is what happened on this occasion.
I decided to go with it, instead of distracting them (or forcing the issue, as I'm not happy to say I had sometimes done in the past in desperation), so when they clamped their mouth shut after a few seconds of brushing this time, I gently and warmly said 'We need to brush your teeth'. As they were already sitting in my lap, I gently kept them there as they cried hard, told me they didn't want to do their teeth, and pushed against me with all their strength. Our child could have easily wiggled away under my arms, but instead they chose to stay and push and cry. I reassured them 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 their mouth and again say warmly, 'We need to do your teeth' - this would inevitably bring on fresh waves of tears and protests. At one point, our child clutched their head with both hands, right on top, and looked very fearful. They did this for a few seconds and were really wailing hard. I had some thoughts in my mind about their birth (this baby was delivered by ventouse at the last moment as they were really struggling, and then was 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 them, they seemed to settle a bit, and allowed me to gradually bring the toothbrush close enough to touch their lips. I said again 'Nothing is going to hurt your mouth'. They then said something quietly like 'It's going to be gentle', and opened their mouth to let me gently brush a few of their teeth for a short while. Our child then seemed to feel like that was enough brushing, and they had another big cry, until they asked for Daddy to brush their teeth. They then sat on Daddy's lap, cuddled in, let him brush their teeth with no problem, and then came over to give me a big cuddle. It felt amazing to have really listened to what our child had to show us, and not to have rushed them, or forced them to get their teeth done.
And since listening to our child on this occasion, I am happy to report that they find 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