Managing Your Child’s Anxiety at the Dentist

You hear it said all the time: “I hate the dentist!” or “I just hate going to the dentist!” but seldom, when you inquire further, is it actually about the dentist, it’s about the noise and the risk for pain and the powerlessness people feel with a mouth full of equipment. When you think of it from a child’s perspective, that big light and the buzzing noise are fairly monster-like. In some families, anxiety and the dentist go hand in hand. Unfortunately for those families, avoidance behaviors can get passed down, and children are at risk for having dental problems that would be easily prevented if they had been followed by a dentist. Let’s explore a few ways to help relieve the anxiety.

The first idea is a really important one: Start them young! When a child is raised going to the dentist since before they can remember, they usually do not encounter the problems of children coming late to the game. For one thing, they are familiar with the setting and procedure, and for another, their care has been overseen for years. A child at the age of 10 who has to go to the dentist for the first time to fix an abscess or a broken tooth is going to experience some degree of discomfort, and that’s a bad start for a life-long habit.

Get recommendations to find a good fit. If you post on social media that you are looking for a dentist for your kids, you will be surprised at how many people will jump on to tell you that theirs is the best. Dentists who have experience working with kids will be better equipped to handle an anxious child, and parents have strong feelings about which practitioners helped ease their child’s fears and which ones made it worse.

Be aware of your own anxiety. Parents who are nervous about dental visits will unknowingly pass some of those vibes on. Be sure to speak of the appointment in positive terms and avoid words like “shot,” “pain”  or “hurt.” Model the behavior you hope to see in your child. For a first time visit, talk about what will happen in positive terms. For example, using a toothbrush, count the child’s teeth and show him/her what to expect. The inability to predict a situation is nerve wracking for children, and playing out what will happen in advance will be reassuring.

Bribing a child to behave with the promise of a treat afterward might seem like a good idea, but kids are pretty smart, and they know if something is going to be fun, no one needs to offer ice cream afterwards as a reward. Feel free to reward positive behavior, but be careful about promising it beforehand.

Most offices these days are well equipped with distractions. TV’s for each chair, headphones, game systems-  all these things are available to help distract your child. Poor modern children will never experience the boredom we felt waiting for the hygienist, or the magic of the chair that fills the cup of water to the exactly right level, and the swirling drain where your spit disappears.

Some things are hard to predict, but you know your child better than anyone else does. Feel free to call the dentist before your appointment  to get information you know will be helpful. Ask questions such as:  “Will I be allowed to sit with my child during the exam?”  “How long can we expect to wait to see the dentist, and then how long will my child be in the dental chair?” “How many people can my child expect to encounter while in the office?” “Will my child be allowed to bring a favorite toy or comfort item with them?”

Hopefully you and your children have a dentist that you feel completely comfortable with. Paving a smooth path for a lifetime of good dental care should be a priority, and applying these ideas will help your child have a trauma free experience and a lifetime of healthy teeth.

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