Expert Parenting Advice
Practical parenting tips and advice from experts around the world

The toothbrush incident

Why kids are often physically incapable of making good decisions when they are upset, and why getting angry and screaming at them doesn't help.

Monday was my daughter's first day back at kindergarten after a two week break.

When she got back, she was tired, cranky, and just generally opposed to everything.

After a long, emotional evening, it was finally time for brushing teeth. Unfortunately, I made the "mistake" of cleaning her toothbrush before brushing her teeth.

"I don't want my toothbrush clean!" she shouted, stamping her feet.

"But honey, we need to get the germs off," I replied soothingly, feeling my fists clench.

"I want the germs!" she roared.

"Well, the germs are gone now," I said in my calmest voice, my eye now starting to twitch a bit.

"I want the germs!" she shouted again.

Then she grabbed the toothbrush, ran to the toilet...and rubbed it all along the inside of the toilet bowl...

Here's the thing: when kids get really upset, their rational brains shut down. They start acting purely on emotion and instinct, without any real conscious control over their behavior. They do things that make no logical sense, like trying to re-germify their toothbrush from the toilet.

But that's just because their brains are just not physically developed yet. They rely on us, as parents, to stay calm and help them get through these emotional periods. It is our job to keep them safe (throw the toilet toothbrush away), and help them identify the emotions they are having.

In our book "How To Get Kids To Listen," Jennifer Kolari, a leading parenting expert and founder of Connected Parenting, explained it like this:

I always say to parents that they’re not actually parents. They’re substitute frontal lobes. Their job is to regulate, organize, prioritize, and do everything that the frontal lobe can do, because their kids don’t have a frontal lobe yet.

Jennifer Kolari

Nathan Wallis, a neuroscience educator from New Zealand, explained it like this:

And neuroscience helps us to understand that it’s hard work being a child.

By understanding the neurobiology of the brain, I think it makes us more tolerant of the fact that they’re emotional. They’re often non-logical. We can get frustrated with that, but if you understand how their brain is working, I just think it makes you more empathetic. And it makes you realize that they’re kind of the apprentice, and you are the qualified person.

You’ve already got a frontal cortex, whereas they have to develop theirs through modeling from you. So, getting angry and screaming at our kids, or just standing over them, might scare them and have a short-term positive reaction for the parent, as in compliance, but it’s just going to be modeling an aroused brainstem, and they’re not going to get good outcomes long-term.

Nathan Wallis

Just understanding that children often cannot control their actions has helped me a lot with dealing with my children. I'm able to stay calmer and not take it personally when they start rubbing their toothbrushes in toilets.

Understanding that kids are emotional creatures, and teaching them how to manage their emotions, is one of the key themes that many of the experts we interviewed for our book talked about.

If you haven't already, you can download our book "How To Get Kids To Listen" for free here.