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Getting Teens to Brush Their Teeth

Teenagers should practice proper oral hygiene.

Rebellious teenagers who give brushing the brush-off could be establishing a lifetime pattern of dental neglect, say dentists who urge parents to be extra vigilant with their teen-aged children during this difficult period of growth.

"When teens hit puberty, sometimes their habits slip," says David Miller, D.D.S., a general dentist. "It's not unusual for teenagers to go through a period of months, maybe years, when their toothbrushing habits aren't very good, maybe nonexistent. If you have a child who is susceptible to cavities or gum disease, this is when trouble can find a foothold."

Many teenagers, says Dr. Miller, haven't figured out they have adult teeth, which have become taller than the baby teeth they left behind. Also, the 12-year molars come in between 10 - 16 years of age and many children are not aware of reaching back to brush them. Plus, many kids just can't adequately floss until they are 10 - 14 years of age.

That makes a routine dentist visit  for dental exams and dental cleanings even more important. Dr. Miller suggests that parents enlist the help of the dentist to deliver the message that dental care is important.

"I wouldn't nag a kid about brushing because it frequently doesn't work," he says. "Ask the hygienist or dentist to talk to your child about dental hygiene. An outsider -- one who is authoritative but neutral -- will get your kid's respect and probably have better luck encouraging your teen to brush and floss."

Dr. Miller says that parents can try to communicate the perils of poor oral care in terms teens understand. "A parent can reason with teens in their own language. For example, it takes only about three minutes twice a day -- or about two videos on MTV -- to brush away the sticky layer of plaque that accumulates on teeth. If left untreated, plaque can harden and lead to cavities, gum disease and eventually, tooth loss.

"Or you can talk in terms that a teen cannot mistake: 'Plaque looks totally gross and makes your breath reek'."

Dr. Miller offers some quick tips to encourage brushing:

  • Don't hover. Constantly monitoring teens may push them farther from the sink.
  • Use positive forms of reinforcement but try to avoid full-scale bribery. Set up an appropriate reward system.
  • Quietly place some dental pamphlets where your teen can find them and allow for some individual exploration.
  • Don't threaten. Never use a visit to the dentist as punishment, which can create an unfounded fear of the dentist and instill a dread of dental treatments.

Finally, says Dr. Miller, parents should practice what they preach. "Who's going to listen to the advice of someone who doesn't follow it? Parents should brush teeth at least twice a day."

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