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NVC and Brushing Teeth

Question from Justine, mother of two:

My two-year-old son doesn't like being asked to do anything - from eating, to potty training, to getting dressed - and every night he refuses to have his teeth cleaned before bed. He ignores me and my husband when we broach the subject with him. Empathizing with him works to reduce the intensity of his tantrums. However, after giving him empathy, I get stuck. I don't think he's old enough to understand my needs, and he seems to "switch off" when I try to talk to him or explain my reasons for what I'm asking him to do. He has a great spirit and is a little cherub; he is just powerfully willful and has the whole house either jumping through hoops to please him (or at least keep the peace for 5 minutes!) or hopping mad because we feel like failures in the face of this conflict. I know that beneath every "no" there is a "yes," so would love it if someone could share some practical techniques to use in these situations.

Grace responds:

I'm imagining that you might be really frustrated and confused about what to do to get your parenting needs met. I'm wondering if you feel overwhelmed and upset with all the "no's" you are hearing? Possibly needing cooperation, ease, peace? Would you like some hope that this process with your two year old can get easier?

I'm a mother of a 27-month-old boy and have been studying NVC under the year-long Leadership Program for the past year. My son has accompanied me to most NVC workshops I have done (wow) and I found the family camp last year was an incredible learning experience for me. I'd like to share my experiences in the hope I may offer support as well as meet a need in me for contribution to a topic I enjoy.

Be willing to hear a 'no' and to work with it

One very important NVC idea I've heard is that it is essential to make requests without an attachment to hearing a "yes". If we ask only with a "yes" answer option then we aren't really asking; we are demanding. If we are demanding, then we are usually not open to considering the other person's need unless it coincides with ours (we can hear the "yes" in the "no" but discussing that is another topic in itself). For more information on this topic, read Inbal Kashtan's article When a Child Says "No".


I try to give myself empathy so as to connect with what my underlying need really is and to notice if I am already upset and in "demand energy," or whether I am open to hearing what my child's need is. Especially if I am upset, I find it usually evaporates once I "hear" myself and understand my own feelings and needs. I can also better strategize to come up with ways to meet all our needs. Sometimes I may even do self-empathy out loud, in my child's hearing, turning it into self-expression:

"I am feeling somewhat confused and frustrated as to what to do. I am trying to figure out how to make sure your teeth are healthy, and I know that brushing your teeth usually helps this happen. I'm really worried that if you don't brush, you may get cavities and that these may be painful. I also want you to learn life-long skills to keep your teeth healthy. The only way I know how is to brush your teeth. Do you understand what mummy is saying?" (Hopefully you get a nod, but he may have run off to play already!)

Here's another request you might make:

"I'd really like us to find a way to make this fun for you and easier for me. Would you like to help me figure out what would be a fun way to do this?"

Or, "Would you tell me what you don't like about brushing your teeth?"

Or, "Would you mind telling me the names and colors of all the bugs we see in your mouth as we chase them with your supersonic jet detective (toothbrush)?"

There are endless options of requests depending on the situation, your child's responses, etc. I keep at this and eventually my son trusts that I am really asking him something, not telling him. He may brush today or it may take a while to build trust and strategies that support both our needs - but ultimately I believe he is more likely to develop the long-term habits if he feels like he is choosing to brush.


Offering your son tons of empathy is an incredible way to get things happening. By the way, I have found that offering empathy stops tantrums very effectively with the children I've done it with. My guess is they feel heard and seen and no longer worry about getting those needs met by using louder means. For example, I try to guess my son's feelings and start talking:

"Are you feeling energetic? You really want to play? I imagine it is hard to want to play and have your mom ask you to do other things like brush your teeth; do you feel frustrated?"

"Are you really wanting to be in charge of what you do and when you do it?"

"Do you need autonomy?"

I keep talking to him with a compassionate tone while trying to really understand and imagine his feelings and needs. I use simplified NVC and throw in "big words" like "autonomy" and "self-expression" so that, even while we're connecting, he is also learning NVC vocabulary and ways to express his feelings and needs. I find that I don't get past the first two or three sentences anymore; he just relaxes and starts doing what I'm asking or gets off the floor if he was starting a tantrum and runs off to play. I call it "the magic of empathy." Other moms who see me offer empathy to their child when that child is expressing herself or himself in ways we aren't enjoying are astounded!

Child's time/NVC process time

I think it is difficult for many of us in a fast-paced lifestyle to create space in our lives so that requests are not made under time pressure. I try to be willing to have things not happen in the way and time I think they should. I also try to accept that my child has different needs and so expect to make a request a number of times and to support him in starting the process. A child (or an adult) may need at least 15 minutes of time to change gears and leave something they enjoy. Think of yourself at a party, and imagine your partner states, "It is time to leave," just as someone you've been wanting to talk to comes up to chat with you. You'd probably negotiate to have a few minutes more before leaving. A child may not yet have the language to ask or the understanding why you are leaving and where you are going next - for him or her, leaving makes no sense at all when they're engaged in the flow of life.

Understanding the need for autonomy

In my experience, I find that autonomy needs are behind most "no's", and that if I honor my son's ability to participate in making choices that affect not only him but me too, he doesn't need to challenge me as much. This has been true since he was an infant. Even when he didn't understand the words he understood the tone of my voice. I also let go of having the thing happen every time I ask. I guess I am offering the idea that we may need lots of empathy in order to get to this place of non-attachment to the immediate outcomes or results. Instead, I focus on my goals for the quality of the relationship I want with my son, now and in the future.


Turn every possible opportunity into play and the gates open. Inbal Kashtan has a meaningful example of this in her recently published booklet, and there are other examples in the NVC-parenting email forum that parents have written about. I can't say this one enough!

Consider our power

Lastly, I think it is important for adults to consider the idea that in our social structures, adults have most of the power and children have almost none. They rely on us for everything and can't just walk away if they don't like what they are getting from us. I'd like to imagine that we can all honor this and use our power carefully and with wisdom.

By the way, in Africa where I am from, we don't (didn't) eat as much sugar-filled food, juices, desserts, and snacks. In my mom's generation and back, we didn't even have sugar. These are major causes of cavities. We used to chew on a pine tree branch at my grandmother's house instead of using a brush. We chewed on sugar cane to strengthen our teeth and get our sweet kick too! Lastly, some folks' teeth last and some don't (some of it is simply genetics). I find that it's sometimes worth considering the idea that even our most basic assumptions about what is important or necessary are related to what culture we come from, and to imagine other ways of getting our underlying needs met.

Grace Maina was a student in the BayNVC (Bay Area Nonviolent Communication) Leadership Program in 2003, which she participated in along with her toddler son. The above article is her response from that time to a question posted on the NVC-Parenting yahoo group. She is currently an Empathic Life Coach, Parent Coach, and Communication Facilitator.