5 Ways To Help Children Manage Dental Anxiety

Does your child fear the dentist? Many kids do—mine included. After a routine visit, my seven-year-old son swore off opening up and saying “ahh.”

The scrape of enamel. The taste of fluoride. Repeated attempts to take X-rays by thrusting a too-big implement into his mouth. It was all too much for my sensitive boy.

As his mom, the scene was painful to watch. Eventually I called the appointment quits and left the office, my son in floods of tears.

There has to be a better way, I thought, so I set out to find it. In my quest to help my son, I learned some interesting tidbits. Turns out, it’s not just that overbite that runs in the family. Studies have found that parents—particularly fathers—tend to pass their dental anxiety onto their children.

Well, that explains a lot. While I don’t regard my time with the hygienist as a special treat, I don’t dread it the way my husband does. And he is a walking cautionary tale. Decades of fear and avoidance translated into 13 cavities on his first visit to the dentist in as many years.

I don’t want my son suffer the same fate as his dad.

Here are five tips to make a trip to the dentist if not fun, then at least grin and bearable for anxious kids:

  1. START YOUNG
    The first visit can be as early as their first birthday. Start with a few ‘meet and greet’ sessions in which your child simply gets acquainted with that person in the white coat and all their funny gadgets. If your tot is very young, you can print out these cute poems and colouring pages, and there are some great books about going to the dentist (Melvin the Molar is a personal favourite in this house). You could even role play using stuffed animals.
  2. ZIP THE LIP
    Kids like to know what to expect, and there is comfort in predictability. So by all means you should use the “tell-show-do” method, but when you are describing what will happen during a visit, stick to the facts. Whatever you do, don’t share your own past experiences or project your own fears and worries. Even if you mean well, you may inadvertently get your child’s anxiety up.
  3. THINK POSITIVE
    Use positive language, like “happy teeth,” goodbye “sugar bugs.” Steer clear of words like “pain” or “hurt” even when used in negative context, e.g. “it won’t hurt…” Emphasize the importance of keeping chompers healthy for life. As parent I have to do what I can to establish a positive association early on because what’s the alternative? A child who grows into an adult who neglects his oral health. My husband, in other words.
  4. GO PEDIATRIC OR GO HOME
    Although my dentist suits my own needs perfectly fine, pediatric dentists are used to dealing with little people who may be unsure or nervous. Not only do pediatric dentists know how to establish rapport and explain things in a kid-friendly way, their offices aren’t sterile and boring. They’re specifically set up to appeal to children—with video games, TV, and toys. In fact, I wish I could watch sit back and chill with Netflix during my appointment…
  5. AVOID BRIBERY
    It goes without saying that offering sweets or candy to reinforce good behaviour in the chair is kind of counterintuitive. Little trinkets often work well on little kids. Praise and encouragement goes a long way. But be mindful that bribery sends children the message that going to the dentist is some horrific ordeal to be endured. Teaching your child relaxation and self-soothing techniques may help them most in the long run. Leave the rest to the expert in the white jacket.

A version of this post originally appeared at YummyMummyClub.ca

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Author: Julie M Green