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Eight Ways to Help Your Anxious Child At the Dentist

There are few things worse than having a frightened, highly anxious child come into the dental office in need of treatment.   I feel bad for the child - and for their parents who are making their child do what terrifies them.   As a dentist, and the father of a child who has dental anxiety, I'm acutely aware of the mix of helplessness, embarrassment, and even frustration that parents feel when their child is experiencing a high level of anxiety.  With the right amount of empathy, support, skills and coaching nearly every child can overcome this fear.  Here are my suggestions on how you can help your child deal with anxiety at the dental office:


Don't Share YOUR Dental Anxiety  

If a parent struggles with anxiety at the dentist - and I know a lot of adults do - there's a good chance their child will, too.  Why?  Because when you voice your fear, avoid going to the dentist, make jokes about how much you dislike dental appointments - your child picks up on it.  Addressing your own dental anxiety may help limit how much your child models these same behaviors.

The Benefits of the Dental Visit  


It's easy for a  frustrated parent to portray the dentist and a dental visit as a consequence or form of punishment for their child's poor oral hygiene.  Don't use threats like: "If you don't brush your teeth Dr. Morrison is going to use the drill to fix your cavities" - or something equally frightening.  Instead, emphasize how happy Dr. Morrison is going to be when your child has a great check up, or how proud you'll be when the Dental Hygienist tells you how well they're brushing.  Let them know the dentist is there to help keep their teeth healthy just as their pediatrician helps keep their body healthy. 

Visit Early  


Bring your child in at age three for their first visit.  We'll have a friendly chat, let them touch the instruments, see the inside of their mouth with the intraoral camera, and sit in the chair.   We'll even take a quick peek in their mouth and let them get a toy out of the treasure box.   If your child shows signs of anxiety early on we can start to work on it.  Unaddressed dental anxiety usually just get worse.

Acceptance and Empathy 


Accept and empathize with - rather than invalidate - your child's anxiety.   Try to get at the specifics of their fear - are they worried about pain?  fear of the unknown?   worried about shots?  worried about the loud or strange noises?  Taking a moment to understand and accept their feelings will allow you to support your child more effectively.  Finding out what specifically is frightening to them also gives our staff a better idea about what we can do to assure their comfort when they're at the office. 

Don't Overreact 


It is hard to see your child suffer.  As parents, we have to tolerate their distress, remain positive and calm, and move forward with the dental appointment because it's in the child's best interest.  Calling off the appointment or procedure,  providing excessive reassurance to a crying child, or appearing to be overly concerned about their anxiety may actually strengthen and reinforce it.  We've found that often child's anxiety decreases when we suggest that the parent sit in the waiting room during the appointment.  This lets the child know that mom (or dad) is confident  they're going to be fine - which alleviates some of the fear and allows the child to calm down. 

Help them Manage Their Anxiety  


We'll work with you on this.  If the sound of the suction machine is terrifying we can take a few minutes to let them see it and experiment with putting it in their mouth.  Prepare them for the appointment -  let them know the week before, the day before and the day of the appoint that they will be coming in to see Dr. Morrison.  Arrive early so they can sit calmly in the waiting area for a few minutes.  Help them come up with some calming strategies.  Do they have an item that keeps them calm (my son still brings his "bunny" to doctor visits), or think about downloading a kids book or some special music for them to listen to on earphones while we work.  Finally, even very young children can practice simple breathing or relaxation techniques.  


Reward Brave Behavior 


Instead of paying attention to anxious behavior, or expressing disappointment about how they acted, praise their use of anxiety management skills - even if it was minimal.   Were they able to walk into the exam room on their own?  Did they stay in the dental chair?  Did they get through the exam without crying?   Or maybe they cried for just for a minute?  These are all great steps.  


Prevention is Key 

The best way to help your anxious child?  Make sure they take great care of their teeth at home, and bring them in for regular exams and cleanings.  We can identify areas where they may need to improve their brushing, or intervene at a very early stage if there  is a problem.   With good oral hygiene, they may be able to avoid potentially anxiety-inducing procedures and simply have pleasant, comfortable visits for cleanings and exams.

Managing dental anxiety in children is a process.  We'll work together with you to make your child's dental experience as comfortable and pleasant as possible.  If you have questions or want to schedule an appointment, please contact us.    Do you have other calming strategies you've used with your anxious child a medical or dental visit?  Feel free to share in the space below.  

As always - we always welcome new patients (even anxious ones).