It’s common for children to be afraid of going to the dentist. Whether it’s the social stigma or the scary noises, your child may put up a fight when you suggest going to the dentist. This is a parent’s guide on how to relieve your child’s dental anxiety and how you can help make the dental routine normal.
Why is Your Child Scared?
This seems to be a simple question with simple answers, but there are a lot of factors that could be the cause of your child’s dental fear.
This is quite a primal fear: being scared of your mouth or airways being blocked. It’s one of the first unconscious fears kids experience at the dentist, especially if they are “mouth-breathers” and don’t habitually breathe through their nose.
The gag reflex is a protective mechanism that allows the body to expel things that may be blocking the throat or airway. For this reason, many kids struggle to suppress this instinct when they first go to the dentist.
Pain and the Unknown
Seeing sharp implements like needles or drills can be scary for anyone, let alone a child who feels vulnerable. From experience, people naturally correlate sharp objects to pain so it is unsurprising that just looking at dental tools could be a trigger for anxiety.
The soundscape of dental surgeries can also be scary for children who are not used to it. The sound of drilling can be harsh and alien, and the clean sterile smell warns kids that they are in an unnatural environment.
Due to all these factors, children may experience a general unease and fear of the unknown when they first step into a dental surgery. And because it is such a foreign environment, this may also make kids feel powerless and vulnerable.
Children model what their parents do and feel. It is common for your child to feel the fear you feel, and oftentimes when you experience dental anxiety, that is vicariously passed down to your child.
If you or your partner experiences debilitating dental phobia, avoid going to the dentist with your child and allow the parent who is unaffected to take the child instead. Parents are the calming, stabilising presence in a child’s dental visits and this factor should remain consistent.
What Should You Do?
1. Start Early with the Right Dentist
It is recommended that you bring your child to the dentist when they turn one year old (or when their first tooth appears, whichever is earlier). The earlier they are exposed to a dental surgery environment, the more recognisable and less alienating future experiences will be for the child.
This is why it is important that you choose a dental clinic and dentist who you trust to meet your child’s needs. Pediatric dentists and family dental practices specifically help children feel comfortable in a dental environment.
2. Talk to Your Child
Using simple language to help your child understand what to expect from a dental visit and why they’re going is very important. Use positive words to help frame the upcoming experience in a friendly, fun light (such as “strong, healthy teeth” and “beautiful, shiny smile”) instead of negative words (such as “hurt” or “pain”).
Try to avoid using any complicated or technical language while explaining the dental visit to your child. The dental staff will introduce the necessary terms and ideas to your child during the visit itself so, to not confuse them, just stick to easy-to-understand language when talking to your child.
Avoid asking your child to be brave – needing to be brave indicates that it will be scary and it is an irregular occurrence. Your child needs to know they will be safe and that dental visits are a normal, habitual occurrence that they can expect every six months.
For this reason, try to avoid “bribing” your kids with sweet treats or other rewards. Try not to make a big deal of dental visits as though they are events but rather just part of regular routine. This will help lower any anxiety your child may experience; if they know you aren’t concerned, they won’t be inclined to be anxious either.
3. Do Not Bring Your Child to Adult Appointments
Adult dental appointments in adult dental offices are generally not very child-friendly. Pediatric and family dental clinics tend to be warm, bright and colourful, with the child’s needs in mind. Adult dental rooms are more functional and there will be more drilling sounds in a sterile environment. Bringing your child to one of your appointments may scare them.
4. Your Good Example
One of the most important roles you can fulfil is to be your child’s good example. Don’t outwardly show any anxiety you may have over your own dental appointments. Brush and floss your teeth regularly to show your child the importance of dental hygiene. Be consistent with attending your own dental appointments to show how regular and normal they are to your child.
5. Role Playing
Setting up a pretend dental visit may help your child experience and understand what it will be like before the actual dental appointment. This will help your child feel comfortable with the dental team and the practice in general. You can also role play by being the dentist and your child can be the patient, then reverse roles.
6. Worse Comes to Worst
If your child is overly anxious, go through some relaxation techniques (like breathing exercises) or do something fun and distracting with them (like blowing bubbles) to calm them down. If your child is so anxious that those conservative methods don’t work, you can ask your dentist about whether or not dental sedation (like “happy gas”) may be appropriate for your child.