How Do I Help My Tween Adjust to the Idea of Braces?

Getting braces can be a shock to the status quo for kids. Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., shares guidance how to help your child embrace the change.

Facing Braces
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

Facing Braces

At a recent visit, our dentist said it was time for our 11-year-old to get braces. She got glasses last year, but loves them as a fashion statement. But she's not thrilled with the idea of braces, and begged me to not even book a consultation with the orthodontist. The dentist says they're probably necessary for medical (not simply cosmetic) purposes. How do I help my kid adjust to the idea?

—Facing Braces

In my experience parenting 11-year-olds, they are not the most rational people. We parents are usually thrilled to move beyond the unreasonable toddler years, but this tween and young teen stage can be even more mystifying. We know they have the capacity for logical reasoning, and yet (too often) they don't use it. My children have apparently won the genetic lottery so far when it comes to needing braces, so I haven't been in your exact situation, but I know well the feeling of needing them to get on board for something they desperately don't want to do.

Some parents, especially parents of our generation, now our kids' grandparents, would not see the dilemma. They would say, "so what? She has to have braces, so you take her to go get the braces. End of story." This hard line may "work" in the sense that the child ends up with braces on her teeth, but this approach comes at the cost of a disgruntled tween who probably won't let you forget it and could then act out in other ways.

My upcoming book, Parenting for Autonomy, is all about how to be less controlling with our kids and support their sense of agency and pursuit of autonomy. Decades of research confirms that boosting autonomy-supportive strategies and minimizing controlling responses greatly benefits our children. However, the real-life problem in this aspiration for autonomy-supportive parenting? Sometimes kids have to do what they don't want to do. Your braces-defying tween brings up this tension as I sense you do not want to take the "because I said so" road.

Agency and Autonomy

I spent a year writing this book while living out the ideas at home with my children, and with families I see in my therapy office. Over this time of translating dozens of research studies into the day-to-day reality of parenting, I realized we can use autonomy-supportive strategies to cultivate our child's sense of agency within these very situations when they simply have to do something they don't want to do. It doesn't have to be either/or: either we make them do it and they feel controlled (making life harder for everyone), or we surrender and they don't have to do it. Crooked teeth and jaw problems for life!

I offer examples of how to encourage agency, but hopefully you can take the autonomy-supportive strategies listed below and tweak them to work best for you and your child. You need to feel comfortable as the parent in whichever approach you use, and you know best how your child will respond due to their temperament and personality.

  • Acknowledge your child's perspective. In the motivation research, this is critical when it comes to someone not feeling controlled even when they have to do something they don't want to do. Let your daughter know you understand why she wouldn't want braces, and that it stinks to look ahead to months of annoying wire in her mouth. It makes sense that she just doesn't want to do it.
  • Review the rationale. Repeat why the dentist recommended braces, including what could happen if she waits (for example, having braces even longer). Make sure she heard what the dentist said, and that she understands the information.
  • Find her internal motivation. The dentist's recommendation and your encouragement are external motivators, but people are more likely to change their minds and behaviors when internally motivated. Even though the braces are not needed solely for cosmetic reasons, will there be a benefit to how her smile looks that would appeal to her? Or is there something important to her that getting braces would help her avoid, like getting it over with before high school?
  • Identify areas of choice. Feeling choice also increases internal motivation. Unless there's a time urgency, could she decide when to get them in the next few weeks? You probably need the initial consultation for more information, but if she wants to wait until after an upcoming social event like her first middle school dance for example, maybe that's an option that gives her a sense of control.
  • Plan a reward. Rewards have gotten a bad reputation in some parenting circles, but when used as acknowledgment of doing something hard, they can be effective and positive. Maybe the day your daughter gets her braces on, she gets to miss school and go select a few of her favorite ice cream pints from the store. It is most motivating if she can pick her own reward instead of you making a bunch of suggestions she'll likely reject. (Ask me how I know. Experienced mom of 11-year-olds here!)

Patience and Persistence

Unless you have an extraordinarily flexible and easygoing child, one discussion that includes all of these elements will likely not immediately change your daughter's mind. If you allow time over days and maybe weeks for you to repeat these messages and for her to process them in a way that doesn't feel high-pressured, it's more likely she will shift from emotion to reason and get on board.

In the case that her desperate desire to avoid braces continues, you may need to empathize with her while also planning to get the braces. When my son doesn't want to go to school or soccer practice, I have learned to reflect "I know how much you don't want to go" and we keep moving through the steps of getting ready. We can be loving and understanding parents while also maintaining rules and expectations.

The Bottom Line

Balancing our child's sense of agency with the reality that they don't always have a choice may take more effort than the "because I said so" approach, but it offers so much more learning. With your support, your daughter not only learns how to think differently about a negative experience, she has the potential to feel a sense of pride when she follows through with it. Her mouth gets the braces it needs, you don't feel like you have to force her into it, and she can celebrate with a bowl full of mint chip ice cream. She may even share it with you.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles