My Tween Won’t Brush His Teeth!

Sound familiar? It can be incredibly frustrating to have a tween or teen child who refuses to take care of personal hygiene. But it’s not unusual! Most typical children will go through these phases. Maybe he refuses to take a shower, or she hates to wash her hair. Or maybe he won’t brush his teeth.


There are many reasons children may behave this way. Some children are truly depressed or have other mental health problems; self-care is one of the first things to go out the window in a case of depression. If you suspect this is the case, it’s important to see a counselor or other mental health professional right away.

If mental health issues have been ruled out and your child is still resisting self-care, there are many other possible reasons. Simple laziness is certainly one. Tweens and teens are tired; their bodies are changing rapidly, their hormones are working overtime, and it’s an exhausting experience. If your child is forgetting to brush his teeth out of simple laziness and exhaustion, it’s important to express the very real risks of poor dental hygiene. Skipping a shower every once in awhile might gross you out, but it’s not likely to lead to long-term health problems. Poor dental hygiene, on the other hand, can have devastating consequences.

Kids in this stage are also beginning to develop a natural urge to resist authority. Again, this is completely normal and typical of this age group. But if hygiene turns into a power struggle, the harder you push, the harder he will push back.

Also, remember that for children going through puberty (this can start as early at 8 or 9 years old), their bodies are in a major transition, and caring for them has become more difficult, more work, and more time-consuming. Their developing bodies simply need more caretaking than they did a few years ago. Your child may need time to learn the new habits required of him; his natural resistance to change (and to you) can complicate the process.

So what can you do?

Try to avoid a power struggle. If you feel not brushing has become a real problem, and your child is resisting, bring him to see Dr. Jacobs! A dentist’s admonitions and warnings can often make much more impact on a child than his mother’s advice.

Don’t try to shame your child into brushing. Telling a child that he smells and nobody will want to be his friend is ineffective and frankly cruel. But sometimes showing him pictures of dental erosion and halitosis can leave an impression. Tweens and teens are inherently vain, and the thought that their teeth are going to make them “ugly” might be enough to inspire change.

Another way to encourage dental hygiene is to give your tween some responsibility. If he has younger siblings, place your tween in charge of making sure his little brothers and sisters brush correctly, and be sure the little ones are asking for demonstrations!

Be patient with your child, but do not let up on the importance of dental hygiene. He’ll thank you someday when he has a strong, healthy smile to grow into.