by Amy Smith
Nervous about dental visits? Your kid may be, too! Up to 20 percent of children experience anxiety about visits to the dentist. You know it’s important to have their teeth cleaned and examined regularly, but how do you deal with an anxious child who panics or refuses to cooperate in the dentist’s chair? It’s possible to help your child cope by preparing both yourself and your child, and by following some dentist-recommended steps when you get to the appointment.
Pick Your Dentist Carefully
Before bringing your child to an appointment, take time to get to know the dentist and their office. If you’ve visited this office yourself, you probably have a good idea of the dentist’s manner and procedures. If you’re going to a pediatric dentist for the first time or switching practices, make an exploratory appointment (just a check-up, no procedures) to acquaint yourself with how the dentist and staff interact with kids.
Is the dentist friendly, calm and reassuring? Do they explain what they will do beforehand in a way a child can understand? Does the staff treat kids kindly and give positive reinforcement for good behavior? Avoid offices with unfriendly, rough or impatient staff; they may end up giving your child a negative view of all dentists.
Watch Your Words
The way you talk about dental procedures can have a big impact on your kid’s view of their own appointments. If you express dread or dislike before your checkups or fillings, complain excessively about pain afterward or put off appointments over and over, chances are good that your child will notice and draw the obvious conclusion that the dentist is to be avoided at all costs. It’s also important to avoid frightening your child (or allowing siblings or friends to frighten them) by exaggerating or dwelling on the possibility of pain from shots or drilling.
Get Ready, Get Set …
Preparing your child for a dental exam or procedure will help ease their fears. First, explain why it’s important to go. Is this a routine cleaning? Emphasize that clean teeth feel good, look good and stay healthy so you can chew and smile with confidence. Explain how plaque can build up on teeth and possibly cause cavities that may then need to be fixed.
Does your child need a filling or other tooth repair? Describe the process honestly, including which parts may be uncomfortable, how their mouth and jaw will feel during the procedure and afterward, what tools the dentist will use, and what unusual tastes they may experience. Assure your child that you’ll be in the room and that they can wave their hand to ask for a break or more pain medicine at any time.
Tell your child what you expect from them, including sitting still and following the dentist’s directions. Taking an anti-anxiety remedy that does not have the harmful side effects of prescription drugs, like Brillia, may help reduce the situational anxiety related to dental procedures. In the waiting room, you can help your child practice slow breathing and relaxation techniques to calm their nerves before the procedure.
… Go! (Calmly)
Once it’s time for your child to climb into the dentist’s chair, model calm and relaxed behavior for them. Give them a reassuring smile and make pleasant conversation with the dental staff as they prepare for the exam or procedure. Show your child that you will advocate for them by telling the dentist of any concerns or questions they may have expressed in advance.
If the dentist’s office has a television in the exam room, let your child pick a favorite program to watch. You can also bring a small toy to keep their hands occupied and distract them from possible discomfort. If the office staff allows it and your child finds it comforting, you can hold their hand while they receive any shots.
Reinforcement and Rewards
During the appointment, good dental staff will provide praise and encouragement to your child. You can also use words of positive reinforcement, such as “Good job sitting still,” “You’re being so patient,” or “Keep up the good work; you’re nearly finished.” When the appointment is over, praise your child for anything they accomplished, such as sitting still (even if it was for part of the time), waving their hand when they needed a break, following directions or staying calm. If your child wasn’t completely calm and compliant, keep your cool and remind them of how they can improve next time.
If you stay calm yourself, model the behavior you want to see and provide accurate information and reassurance, you can help your child avoid or overcome the dental anxiety that plagues many children and adults.
Amy Smith is a writer specializing in family and parenting. She teaches English, Latin and music at a private school and lives with her husband and five children on a small homestead in rural Pennsylvania.