As a dentist, and the father of a child who has dental anxiety, I know how helpless, embarrassed, and even frustrated parents feel when their child is experiencing a high level of anxiety at a dental appointment. With the right amount of empathy, support, skills and coaching, nearly every child can overcome this fear.
Here are my suggestions - as a dentist and a dad - 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 the dentist 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 that he has done a great job brushing. Let them know Dr. Morrison is there to help keep their teeth healthy, just as their pediatrician helps keep their bodies healthy.
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, listen to the noise of the suction machine, 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? Choking? Fear of the unknown? Getting a shot? Loud or strange noises? Taking a moment to understand and accept their feelings will allow you to support your child more effectively. Share their fears with our staff so that we can assure their comfort when they're at the office.
It is hard to see your child upset, but 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 a child's anxiety will lessen when mom or dad remains in the waiting room during the appointment. This lets the child know that their parent is absolutely 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
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 the dentist. 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? We don't mind if their favorite toy or blanket is in the chair with them. You can also download a kids podcast 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 during the visit, praise their use of anxiety management skills - even if it was minimal. Were they able to go 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.
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).