Rewards & Consequences

Q: My Child Hates Brushing His Teeth!

“You have to brush your teeth.” “Why?” “So they don’t fall out.” “So what if they do? I don’t care.” If this sounds familiar, read this advice for sensitive children (with and without ADHD) who fight and resist dental hygiene every single day.

Q: “Any tips to improve tooth brushing? My son with ADHD hates it and his gums are swollen and teeth covered in plaque. I’ve tried bribes, gifts, money… nothing is working.”  –Ann Arbor Mom


Hi Ann Arbor Mom:

Boy, did this question resonate with me. When my son was young, it was difficult getting him to brush his teeth. It definitely was a struggle, but eventually he grew out of it. And I hope your son will do the same.

In the meantime, we need to protect his dental hygiene, so I’m going to present you with all types of options – some harsher than others. You decide what works for your family.

  1. You write that your son “hates it.” Do you know what he hates about brushing his teeth? Some kids are very sensitive to having their teeth brushed; it actually produces a gag reflex. Others don’t like the feel of a brush against their teeth. Still others just can’t be bothered. Let’s get clear on the exact issue so we can put the proper workarounds in place.
  2. You also mention that you’ve tried bribes, gifts, and money. All good choices! But have you flipped it around and imposed consequences? I am all for incentives and rewards to promote positive behavior, but sometimes we need to try consequences instead.

Every child has their non-negotiable. Perhaps it’s screen time or his phone? If you present brushing teeth as a responsibility — and his electronics as a privilege — then you are immediately setting up the cause and effect. “If you can’t handle the responsibility of brushing your teeth, then you are not ready for the privilege of your phone. No debate.” As we say in my house: “Asked. And answered!”

  1. Does your son shower? Keeping an extra toothbrush and toothpaste in the shower did the trick for mine. When asked, his answer was “I’m in there anyway so I don’t feel like I have to do an extra thing!” Whatever works! I suggest leaving an extra toothbrush and toothpaste in his shower WITHOUT mentioning it to him. See if that does the trick!
  2. Call in the professionals. Sometimes they just need to hear it from someone other than us. Schedule a cleaning appointment with your dentist and drive him there, but stay in the reception area. This gives the hygienist and the dentist space to talk openly and honestly with your son.  With any luck, they will use the intra-oral camera to show him what his teeth and gums look like because a picture is worth a thousand words.
  3. You could let your son know that any extra dental bills due to his neglect will be his responsibility to pay. If the bills are too high, he can mow the lawn, do odd jobs around the house, etc., to pay you back.
  4. Pick your battles. Trust me. I know it’s awful, but he will eventually grow out of it and become a teeth-cleaning adult. It just might take some time.

Good Luck!

[[Self-Test] Sensory Processing Disorder: Symptoms in Children]


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Updated on August 2, 2019

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