Most often, children’s visits to the dentist are a positive experience for parents and kids alike. Despite this, between 9 and 15% of American adults fear dental visits, according to Cleveland Clinic. When parents are anxious about the dentist, that nervousness can instill fear and anxiety in their child, too.
Adults and kids may fear going to the dentist for several reasons. Cleveland Clinic explains that perhaps the adult or child had a negative dental experience or has heard horror stories that exaggerate their fears. The most common cause of anxiety is the fear of pain. Also, some kids and adults worry about the effectiveness or side effects of anesthesia or have a fear of needles.
A negative experience at the dentist as a child can result in continued anxiety over routine dental care even into adulthood. So, to ensure a positive, successful experience, know how to prepare yourself and your child for his or her first and subsequent dental visits. Doing so will pave the way to a lifelong devotion to regular and consistent dental care when your child becomes an adult.
Your child and the dentist – building a positive relationship early on
The earlier your child begins visiting the dentist, the better. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends your child’s first visit by the age of 1 or within six months of when the first tooth erupts. At this stage, your child’s visit will be quick, simple and pain-free. Providing your child early positive experiences will help your child develop trust in the dentist.
Be aware that depending on your child’s age and the dental office policies, many dentists will ask you to remain in the lobby during your child’s checkup. This is the typical recommendation for children over the age of 3. There’s a good reason for this. Separating a child from parents usually results in fuller cooperation from children. This can go a long way toward a more positive experience for your child.
When your child is placed in the care of the dental staff, they’ll try to make your child’s first visit fun and informative. The dentist will explain and demonstrate routine procedures to your child and then perform those procedures. Your child quickly learns the dentist is someone to trust.
Down the road, if your child needs non-routine dental work, the dentist will similarly work with your child to help alleviate fears.
If you’re still concerned with sending your child in alone, call and ask to speak with the dentist or hygienist. Avoid causing your child alarm, and make the call in private so your child doesn’t pick up on your anxiety. Explain your specific concerns so the dentist can address and alleviate your worries.
Approaching scared or uncooperative children
For a variety of reasons, some children become fearful or uncooperative during a visit to the dentist. If your child arrives unprepared or senses your anxiety, your child may develop undue worry. Previous experience could also cause stress. Kids who are ill or have a physical or mental disability, a behavioral disorder or developmental delay may also be challenging to treat. Whatever the reason, the way your dentist handles your child’s fears and behavior is vital to your child’s emotional well-being and ability to cope with future visits.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry has developed guidelines for behavior management that dentists should follow. Your dentist should use the communication techniques learned in dental school, including positive reinforcement, distraction, voice control, non-verbal communication and the tell-show-do approach.
These techniques all help reassure patients and gain their trust. In most cases, these approaches are sufficient, leading to visits that end on a positive note. If a practitioner lacks the expertise for handling a situation, he should refer your child to a dentist with the appropriate skills.
Prevent an experience that heightens your child’s fears by being proactive
- Contact your state’s board of dentistry when choosing a practitioner to make sure there have been no disciplinary actions.
- Inform your dentist of any medical, behavior or other conditions that might affect your child’s visit. That way, the dentist can communicate with your child accordingly.
- Pediatric dentists have specialized training for dealing with situations that can arise with children. If you suspect your child may have difficulty with dental visits, seek a pediatric dentist.
Tips to get your child off on the right track
- Tell your child about the benefits of going to the dentist, such as to help keep their teeth strong and healthy, and so they’ll have a beautiful smile.
- Read to your child before their first visit to the dentist.
- Try one of the following books:
“Why We Go to the Dentist” by Rosalyn Clark
“The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist” by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain
“Celebrate! Going to the Dentist” by Sophia Day
“Dentist Trip” (Peppa Pig) by Scholastic
“Curious George Visits the Dentist” by H.A. Rey
- Share a DVD with your child, such as “A Trip to the Dentist Through Pinatta’s View.”
- Express positive feelings about your own dental experiences.
- Don’t discuss non-routine procedures such as fillings.
- Explain to your child the necessary procedures he can expect. For example, the dentist will count your child’s teeth and look at them with a tiny mirror. Avoid frightening terminology.
As your child grows, if you have concern over a possible cavity, don’t give your child too much information. This can result in undue anxiety. Your dentist should have the experience and expertise to talk to your child about such procedures in a manner that alleviates any stress your child might experience.
If your child is anxious, don’t try to soothe your child by lying about a procedure or possible pain. Instead, try to alleviate fears that may be out of proportion to the situation.
Finally, offer coping strategies to your child. Have him practice taking long deep breaths. If you’ve confirmed with your child’s dentist that you’ll be attending with your child throughout the procedure, you can offer your hand to squeeze.