Dental Anxiety and Kids: Parents, Caregivers, Dentists All Play a Role

dental anxiety and kids

Some dentists are great at putting kids at ease.

Unfortunately, not every kid with dental phobia can be put at ease by a dentist who dresses up as the tooth fairy. And not every father has the comic skill and parental panache to turn Hermie’s horrifying dentistry in the 1964 animated TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” into a lesson on the importance of proper dental hygiene.

(Who can ever forget the “misfit” elf brandishing those gruesome pliers after extracting the Abominable Snow Monster’s teeth?)

Dental phobia or fear is, of course, no laughing matter. But there is a great deal that parents, caregivers and dentists can do – and are doing – to help kids get through the experience of a trip to the dentist with a smile.

Let’s take a look at some of the most effective interventions for dealing with dental fear in children.

What’s the most effective treatment of dental phobia in children?  

As in so many things in life, when it comes to kids and fear of the dentist, good communication is key.

Parents, caregivers and dentists all have a role to play in setting the stage for not only a good first visit to the dentist’s office, but a lifelong commitment to regular, professional dental care without fear and anxiety. How we frame those initial experiences with words can be very important.

Before the first trip to the dentist

To help ensure things go well during the first visit, your dentist may provide you with some “dos” and “don’ts” in advance. Things like, when talking to kids about the dentist and what goes on during a visit to the dentist’s office, avoid using words like “hurt,” “pain,” “shot,” and other words that have a negative or fearful connotation.

Rule of thumb: only say things that are positive.

Also, experts recommend parents answer children’s questions about the dentist, but, they suggest, don’t go into a lot of unnecessary detail. Be brief. If you don’t know the answer, or if the answer is a little on the complex side, suggest that you and your child save the question for, who else? The dentist. After all, they’re the ones who have years of training and a lot of practice talking to kids about what they do in non-threatening, kid-friendly ways.

…answer children’s questions about the dentist, but don’t go into a lot of unnecessary detail.

Above all, never tell kids about the time you had a terrible (or even unpleasant) time at the dentist. Instead, be sure they understand how important it is to take good care of their teeth. Let them know the dentist and dental office staff members are nice, friendly folks who enjoy helping people, both big and small, be as healthy and happy as they can be.

At the dentist’s office

Even if you’ve done your best to prepare your child for their new experience, it’s not uncommon, and it’s completely natural, for kids to be afraid sometimes. Some kids detest spiders. Others won’t go near a clown. Whether a child cries or throws a temper tantrum, any dentist who regularly works with children will have an array of techniques at her fingertips to put kids more at ease.

Again, in many cases it comes down to good communication. Many dentists who work with kids are quite adept at regulating their tone of voice, so that they are able to go from warm and comforting to gently commanding as the circumstances dictate.

Some dentists use a technique called “show, tell, and do.” It’s a way to explain, step by step, what tools the dentist is using, how they’re used, and what the dentist is going to do next. Pediatric dentists are also trained to use language that’s appropriate for the kids they work with, and there’s a good chance yours will use kid-friendly props – such as a giant tooth or doll – to show your kids what they’re about to do.

Distraction is another communication skill that dentists use to put kids at ease.

Distraction is another communication skill that dentists use to put kids at ease. Telling stories or having a conversation can help dentists focus kids’ attention somewhere other than on the procedure itself. And when needed, most dentists know that when it comes to kids’ behaviors, simple body language can go a long way toward accentuating the positive and discouraging, if not eliminating, the negative.

What can you do if nothing seems to help?

In some instances, it may take more than clever communication to help your child get through their time in the chair. In such cases, a dentist may recommend that a child use safe and effective medications such as nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) during their visit or take an oral sedative beforehand.

Finally, if you or your dentist feel your child’s fear of going to the dentist is extreme or out of control, therapy may be the answer. Therapeutic techniques, including psychotherapy (exploring the source of the fear), cognitive behavioral therapy (practicing practical strategies for dealing with it), and hypnotherapy, may help a child overcome their fears so they can receive and maintain the professional dental care they deserve.

Everyone is afraid of something. Learning how to face our fears is part of growing up.

Everyone is afraid of something. Learning how to face our fears is part of growing up. And you may be surprised. One day, a young adult who was frightened by a routine dental exam, teeth cleaning, or other dental procedure as a child just may decide that they, like Rudolph’s nerdy buddy Hermie, want to be a dentist.

Have you helped a child get past their fear of the dentist? What worked for you? Post your tips or a comment in the Reply section below!

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