Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

How Can You Set Limits If You Don’t Use Threats to Enforce Them?

Published on February 7, 2015 by   ·   1 Comment Social Buttons by Linksku - Share links onlinePin It

How do we “make” our child do what we want, if we don’t use force? And brushing teeth is a perfect example, because I’ve never met a child who was internally motivated to brush his teeth — or a parent who hasn’t been frustrated trying to get kids to brush.

“I’m struggling with how to enforce limits without a consequence. For example, brushing teeth — she’ll refuse. It’s not reasonable for me to do it by force, so I tell her if she can’t brush her teeth, I can’t read a bedtime story to her. I do not understand how to set limits if there are no consequences for ignoring the limit.”

Great question.

Naturally, we’re tempted to threaten our child with punishment. That is, in fact, the only way to force a human to do something they don’t want to do. But look at the cost:

How Can You Set Limits If You Don't Use Threats to Enforce Them?

  • It removes from the bedtime routine the one thing that brings our child closer (the bedtime story.) Result: a child who is LESS motivated to cooperate, now and with more important issues.
  • You lose the opportunity to read with your child, which is arguably one of the most important parent-child interactions in your day, both intellectually and emotionally.
  • It creates a power struggle by using threats to gain compliance, instead of creating a relationship where our child WANTS to cooperate.  What will we do when our child is not motivated by this particular threat?  We’ll have to up the ante, by threatening a bigger consequence. Sooner or later, that always leads to a stand-off, unless we’re willing to use violence.
  • It teaches our child that disagreements should be resolved with threats and force, rather than recognizing both people’s perspectives and finding a win/win situation.These aren’t results we want.

But we do, at times, have to insist on certain things. For instance, brushing teeth.  What can we do?

How Can You Set Limits If You Don't Use Threats to Enforce Them?

1. Stay calm.  If you get upset, it moves your child into fight or flight, which makes you look like the enemy — and makes her less likely to cooperate. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is NOT an emergency. You always have the power to calm the storm, or to inflame it.

2. Acknowledge your child’s perspective — sincerely and with empathy: “You really don’t like brushing your teeth, do you, Sweetie? I hear you, it’s boring to stand there and brush when you’d rather be playing.”  

3. Restate your limit: “In this house, we all brush our teeth before bed. That keeps our teeth healthy.”

4. Give her what she wants in her mind using wish fulfillment: “I bet when you’re grown up you’ll decide NEVER to brush your teeth! Or maybe you’ll have toothpaste that tastes like something super delicious and you’ll LOVE brushing!”  Brain scans show that when we imagine having what we want, the brain indicates satisfaction as if we actually have it, so this helps your child feel better. And using imagination to “think” about the issue gives your child more access to the rational brain. Finally, you’re showing her that you do care about her happiness, even when you can’t say yes to what she wants.

5. Invite cooperation through play. Once you make it a game, you eliminate the stand-off. Unless kids are upset or tired, they can’t resist an invitation to play. So get him giggling.

  • Brush all over his body — his arm, his ear, his belly.  “Is this where I should brush?” (“No, Daddy, here!”)
  • Challenge him to a teeth-brushing contest.
  • Brush his teeth and comment on everything you find in there: “Is that spaghetti?…Hey, I think there’s treasure under there!”
  • Make funny faces at him while he brushes.

6. Find a win/win solution. If you think outside the box — and you have time to be creative — you can always find a solution. Just your commitment to doing so will enlist your child in helping find one. “Hmm… you don’t want to brush…AND we need to keep those teeth clean so the sugar bugs don’t eat holes in them….What can we do to make this work for both of us?”

  • “Want to brush Teddy’s teeth and then I’ll brush yours?”
  • “Want to brush MY teeth at the same time that I brush yours?”
  • “How about if I sing your favorite song to you while you brush?”
  • “Maybe I should hold you up here so you can look in the mirror while we brush?”
  • “Want me to read to you while you brush?” (This was the strategy that worked best with my daughter. As a teen, she still read to herself while she brushed!)

If you stay calm, you will always find a way to get your child’s teeth brushed. Of course, what works this week will stop working next week, so finding new strategies will require creativity on your part. But as it becomes clear to your child that brushing is non-negotiable, there will be less resistance.

Is this more work than just making your child brush? Yes, unfortunately it is. But it’s much more pleasant than holding her down or punishing her. And it’s better for your child’s development. Look what she’s learning:

  • Mom and Dad  care about what I want and try to work with me instead of just using their power to force and threaten. That makes me want to cooperate with them.
  • I’m not a bad person for not wanting to brush my teeth. My parents understand.
  • People can have different perspectives and needs; if we think outside the box we can always find a solution that works for everyone.
  • Brushing teeth isn’t so bad. It’s even fun, because I get to feel close to my parents.
  • I LOVE my parents.  They’re awesome. I would never want to disappoint them.

What more could you ask?

May you make miracles today, large and small.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting – you can visit her at ahaparenting.com

We highly recommend her book:

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Readers Comments (1)

  1. Kerri Wall says:

    This is a terrific article. My now 18 year-old son is a super committed brusher and has been for years. He brushes well, for almost 5 minutes, twice a day. We used almost all the tips from the above article when he was a toddler. His favourite was brushing my teeth for a minute, and then I would brush his teeth for a minute. We would set a timer for this, and he liked the countdown and the ringing.

    Sometimes he just needed to have a cry before we brushed teeth at bedtime when he was 2 and 3 years old. The toothbrushing was safe place for him to put his sad/mad feelings that had collected throughout the day. I would hold him as he cried and said over and over that he didn’t want to brush his teeth. I would say, “you really don’t like the toothbrushing,” and he would cry harder. After a few minutes of crying I would say, “when you are done crying we will brush your teeth.” I wanted him to get the message that his feelings were valid and important and that I would acknowledge them. And I also wanted him to get the message that dental health was a priority. Looks like both messages came through!

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