In this episode: Janet responds to a dad who’s feeling guilty for restraining his 3-year-old daughter and forcibly brushing her teeth when she refused to do so herself. “I didn’t use hurtful force,” he writes, “but her protestations were so strong that I felt as if I was crossing a boundary.” This dad is wondering if there was another way he might have handled the situation.
Transcript of “Is It Ever Okay to Use Force with a Resistant Toddler?”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. This week I’m replying to a parent who recently had an incident with his three-year-old who was refusing to brush her teeth. This dad ended up gently restraining her and brushing her teeth against her will. Now he’s feeling guilty and he’s wondering if there’s another way to handle the situation in a less forceful manner.
Here’s the email I received:
“Dear Janet, I love your podcast, both as a pediatrician and a father of three. Here’s a scenario I struggled with recently. A few days ago, our three-year-old was refusing pajamas and teeth brushing. We typically handle these situations by giving her choices such as, “Do you want to start brushing your teeth or do you want Daddy to start brushing them first?” But on this day she was overtired, in a novel setting, we were in a hotel, and overstimulated. Our two oldest ones had been very playful. Yes, we had failed to set her up for success. After many refusals to brush her teeth, I ultimately restrained her calmly and brushed her teeth against her will. I didn’t use hurtful force, but her protestations, vocal and physical, were so strong that I felt as if I was crossing a boundary.
I generally feel okay brushing teeth with a secure bear hug if needed for kids under two years old. But three-year-olds are bigger, stronger, and just more intense. I felt quite guilty afterwards because, one, we had set her up for failure by delaying her bedtime, et cetera, and, two, using force never feels comfortable.
Ultimately, it all turned out well and she’s been much more willing to go through her routine since that incident. But I wonder if I could have creatively handled the situation in a less forceful manner. Many thanks for your thoughts.”
Okay. So I love this parent’s thoughtfulness and his sensitivity towards his children. That’s wonderful and obviously bodes very well for their relationships going forward.
There are a few ideas I want to unpack here in response to this. First, I want to speak to the difference between setting a hard boundary and a caregiving activity. For me and the approach that I teach, brushing teeth would come under a category of a caregiving activity, similar to diaper changes, clipping their nails, wiping somebody’s nose, bedtime rituals, bathing, dressing, those kinds of things.
With these caregiving activities, we want these to be shared activities with our child. We’re doing them together. It’s not me doing this to you so much as a mutual experience. Within those experiences there are hard boundaries that we might have to set. For example, with teeth brushing we can’t let you squeeze all of the toothpaste out of the container, or in the bath we don’t want you splashing all the water out or even standing up in the bath.
So in those instances we have to stop our child with a firm boundary, which never means a stern boundary. We just take a little control there and say, “I’m not going to let you do that. It looks like you’re having a hard time in the bath. We’re going to have to get out maybe.” Or with toothpaste, we would obviously be holding onto the toothpaste tube so that our child couldn’t be the one to take control of that. Or let’s say we weren’t finished cleaning our child in a diaper change and now they want to jump up and move all around, we might have to hold the child there.
But I would generally approach these activities, again, as more of a light, communicative program of attraction, rather than force. Again, it sounds like this dad is doing that, generally.
What he also noticed was that she was overtired, overstimulated, couldn’t participate in this task at that time. She was too dysregulated, too uncomfortable to try to carry on with this routine.
So for me, I would tend to let go of that a little bit and maybe just see if we could do the minimal. “Could we just put a little water on your teeth? Can you just put this brush in two times?” I would try to make that actually work for my child, rather than insisting, because our overall goal is the relationship we’re developing with our child, and approaching these experiences that we’re going to be dealing with on a daily basis with lightness and love, and not making them into this heavy, stressful thing for either one of us.
I’ve worked with parents who have a lot of fear around getting those teeth brushed, and they have gotten to the point with their children where it’s this dreaded time together. That doesn’t mean they can’t change it back, but that’s what we want to avoid.
A lot of what I teach is understanding how the moment affects the bigger picture, and prioritizing the bigger picture, which is our relationship, the fact that we’re going to want to do these things with our children every day, that these are habits we want them to have for a lifetime and to not put this negativity on it if we can, and that they are moments to develop our relationship and enjoy our children, ideally.
So having said all of that, this was an unusual situation for this family. I don’t see anything wrong with the way this dad handled it. But I agree with his self-assessment. I love that he self-assessed. It’s wonderful if we can do that and do it with love towards ourselves rather than heavy judgment. That’s not going to help us learn from what happened.
I think he realizes, and this is what I would take from this as well, that that just wasn’t going to be a time when this was going to work very well. And maybe toothbrushing could even be let go of for that one day. I don’t know if that’s controversial advice, because I know there are people that are very adamant about it. Interestingly, I feel like that’s changed quite a bit since my children were small and the doctors that we had did not make a big deal about toothbrushing in the first couple of years. They recommended, “Yeah, you try, you do your best, and it’s not a big deal.” But I notice now a lot of the parents I work with get very stressed out about it, so I’m assuming that’s coming from doctors and dentists.
Putting all of that aside, let’s touch on when we do need to force something. I actually don’t even like the word “force” because of what it brings up for me. I prefer “lovingly insist”. Loving insistence is relationship-building between a parent and a child. That doesn’t mean children don’t protest and say, “No, no, no,” or get mad at us for doing it, but I strongly believe and it’s been my experience that, in their hearts, children are glad to have a parent that cares enough to do the harder things.
It’s easy when children say, “Yes, sure,” and we’re just having fun together. But if I did need to insist on something like helping my child into the car seat… Or my child doesn’t want to get pajamas on and I know that if I don’t do that my child’s going to be cold in the night, and that’s my responsibility. My child isn’t likely to be able to think ahead like that, especially at the end of the day when they’re tired. So when we do have to do those things, and this father may have done this, the key is: while you are insisting physically on something, you allow and encourage your child’s feelings around it, staying connected with them in that, welcoming that onslaught of yelling at you or whatever it is.
“You really don’t want to do this. Ah, I hear you. Yikes.” Whatever words work for you. The words don’t matter. It’s about welcoming and understanding that your child has a right to feel whatever they feel, even if it seems unreasonable. They have feelings, especially at the end of the day and around transitions generally. They’re not thinking ahead. They’re in the moment. It’s a time when they relieve stress, when they need to share. This is a time to see that as positive and have a bring-it-on attitude.
So if this dad believed that … maybe she had candy that day and he really needed to get it off her teeth… I don’t know if I would do a bear hug, because that almost seems like a little bit overdoing it to me. But I may not be picturing it the way this dad is doing it.
I would definitely hold my child steady as best I could and, ideally, looking at her, I would say, “Ah, yeah, I really have to do this. I see a little bit here and I’ve got to get this off. Ah, I hear how much you don’t like it. You’re telling me, ‘No, no, no, no,’ I hear you.”
That’s what connecting looks like and feels like to a child in these kinds of moments. And that can be when they’re doing something that’s a more obvious limit, like trying to hit me, and I’ve got to hold your wrists. I don’t need to put you in a bear hug. It’s always better to do the least thing as parents, because that shows our child that we aren’t afraid of them, that we know this is our job, that we believe we’re doing the right thing. So we’re holding those wrists and we’re saying, “Ah, yeah, you want to hit me. I see. I’m stopping you. I’m not going to let you do that.”
And I always have in my mind, “Don’t worry,” although it’s not something I would say that often. That’s the place I want to be coming from. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to let you hit me. Don’t worry. I’m not going to let you go to bed without getting this done, even though you’re mad at me about it.”
It’s challenging to be able to address the elephant in the room, really, instead of pretending, Oh, you’re going to have a feeling but I’m not going to talk about it. I’m not going to go there. I’m going to try to move past that and move around it, or maybe even distract you from it. instead of, Yeah, you’ve got a right. You’ve got a right to not like this thing I’m doing with you. But I love you so much I’m going to keep doing it. And I really welcome you to share what you need to share about that.
In our hearts, we have to know that it’s probably not really about that particular thing. It’s about, Ah, I’m so overtired. Ah, I’m so overstimulated, in this case. Children could be having a blast all day, but it’s intense for them, and they’re going to need to vent some of that intensity with us.
And that’s why it always seems so unfair when we feel like as parents, Wow, I did all these wonderful things. She had such a great time. And now she’s not just doing these things I want her to do. That’s not fair. Well, her excitement, her enjoyment has another side to it, and that’s the side that children need to release before they can regulate themselves again and sleep well. So it’s this very unfair thing that, for a child, a huge scary feeling has the same result as huge excitement and happiness.
The hotel, the brothers playing, all this excitement, all this novelty, I totally agree with this dad, it wasn’t set up for success. That’s nothing to feel guilty about. He handled it the best way he could in that moment, and I’m sure he didn’t harm her or hurt their relationship in any way. But, yeah, maybe there is something to learn from this, and that’s that there are times when we have to realize, Oops. We got her to this state and now maybe we’re going to have to let go a little on some of these other things. Or, if we feel like it’s so important that we do need to carry on, we’re going to understand that we’re going to get blasted out of the room and we’re going to welcome that, and show her that we’re safe people she can share that with, and she’s got a right.
Anyway, it was so thoughtful of this dad to consider what had happened and reach out about it. I really appreciate that. The way that he normally handles teeth brushing sounds fine; giving her the opportunity to do it herself before he gives her a helping hand. Sometimes brushing teeth together works. Sometimes even putting toothbrushing earlier into the routine, like maybe right after dinner get it done. I recommend keeping it as a routine, a matter of course, part of a child’s day, but also being flexible and not considering it a hard limit; considering it a time to work with our child to get it done as best we can and to keep seeing the big picture of this being a little moment of quality time together where we’re walking her through.
Then, with the pajamas, I would get those on as best you can, all the while talking her through and hearing her out, encouraging her to feel whatever she feels about it in that moment. “Ah, you don’t want this. You don’t want me to put these on you.” And we don’t even really have to say the words. I’m saying the words because this is a podcast. But if we have the attitude and we’re looking at our child with those empathetic eyes and we’re perceiving what’s true, which is that we’ve got an overwhelmed child here, she’s not being a bad child, she’s overwhelmed, it’s not going to go well, and we played a part in this getting like this. And that happens. That’s life. These things are going to happen. It’s okay. The trade-off for that was that you got to go stay at a hotel and have an interesting day, so it’s not something to feel badly about, but just to be aware that it does have an effect.
Children are very sensitive in these early years.
So we’re going to cut our losses and do the best we can to get through this with her and understand. That’s what I love about this note as well, is that this dad really does understand his daughter’s perspective. I really hope some of that helps.
Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both my books are available on audio, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or, you can go to the Books section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.com.
Thank you for listening. We can do this.