Five strategies for preventing your child’s dental anxiety
Seeing your child scared and anxious is one of the more challenging aspects of parenting. In many situations, it’s a truly helpless feeling. Unfortunately, this feeling of anxiousness and fear is quite common for children (and many adults) at the dentist. It’s a scary and vulnerable position for children to have someone digging around in their mouth.
The good news is, there are plenty of steps you can take as a parent to mitigate your child’s fear and ensure their experience is a positive one. Dental anxiety management for children takes careful planning, proactive measures, and a little bit of creativity. Check out these five strategies for preventing your child’s dental anxiety.
1. Take kids early and often
Taking your children to the dentist at a young age is critical for several reasons. While early dental evaluations are essential for evaluating oral health, creating a sense of normalcy around trips to the dentist from an early age is just as critical. Ensuring your child is used to going to the dentist is a great way to prevent them from developing dental anxiety. You don’t want to go overboard and make unusually frequent trips, but taking your child twice a year is both recommended, from a medical standpoint, and helps them create normal, positive associations around visits. We also recommend that these trips begin by year one of age. Typically, the first tooth erupts around six months, and this would be an excellent time to start your twice-a-year dental check-up routine with them. The earlier and more often a child visits the dentist; the less inclined your child is to develop anxiety around these trips. Make it routine, make it normal, because it’s a great way to kill two birds with one stone: ensuring your child’s dental health and proactively addressing the dental anxiety management for your child.
2. Talk to your children about what to expect
Communication and expectations are key! Most children develop dental anxiety because they don’t know what to expect when visiting their dentist. Like so many of us, fear of the unknown is incredibly scary and can create negative associations with something before we even experience it. A young child visiting the dentist often creates a negative association with the trip because they fear what will happen to them. Make sure to tell your child exactly what to expect. Let them know what the dentist and hygienist will be doing with them, go over the steps of a dental cleaning, routine exam, or even a filling. Having these conversations early on can have several positive effects, long term, for your child regarding their trips to the dentist. Number one, they won’t be as scared once they’re in the dentist’s chair because they will know exactly what’s about to happen. Secondly, they will develop a sense of trust with their dentist because the dentist’s actions will validate their expectations. Setting clear expectations with your child about their trip to the dentist is critical when managing their dental anxiety. It’s also important to create positive associations with trips to the dentist. Make sure to let them know that the dentist and staff at the office will be friendly, gentle, and concerned for the child’s well-being, above all else. The dentist is just there to take care of them and make sure they’re healthy.
3. Use techniques that help keep your child calm
While dental anxiety management is a common struggle for many parents with their children, each child is so different in dealing with this anxiety. You need to know how your child responds to stressful, scary situations and, most importantly, things that help them soothe or cope with these powerful emotions. This is especially important for parents of children with special needs. Deep breathing is a great way to address your child’s anxiety and fear around a dental visit. Whether or not your child is letting you know they’re getting nervous about an upcoming visit to the dentist, try some deep breathing exercises to help calm their nerves and relax them. Try playing some of their favorite music in the car on the way to the dentist’s office, or play calming, relaxing music to help soothe them. If your child has a favorite book or story they read before bed, take it with you to the office and read it in the waiting room. Let your child take their favorite stuffed animal or small toy with them to the office. Some parents may need to get creative in helping soothe their child for a dental appointment. Use the intimate knowledge you have of your child and how they cope with their emotions to your advantage. All of these techniques can help a child feel safe and secure in an otherwise daunting setting.
4. Communicate with dental office staff
While it’s incredibly important to communicate with your child about what to expect at the dentist’s office before their visit, it’s equally important to communicate with the office staff. Before your child’s visit, let the staff know about your child and their fears surrounding the appointment. Pediatric dentists and their staff members are particularly well equipped to help children overcome a variety of fears and uncertainties. Simply put, they’ve seen it all and know how to deal with specific anxieties, behaviors, and special needs patients. Letting them know if your child has certain fears or special needs allows them to prepare for the appointment and plan ways to make the visit as comfortable as possible. The staff can adjust the procedures or logistics of the visit and have distracting or calming plans in place to accommodate for any fears your child may be experiencing. Communicating with staff ahead of time is arguably the most effective and important way to minimize your child’s anxiety surrounding the dentist. The dentist and staff want to make sure your child is as safe and comfortable as possible, and communicating with their team allows them to do so.
5. Incentivize good behavior at their appointment
We don’t like to recommend bribing your child openly, but it’s an extremely effective way to help them get through their dental appointment with less panic and fear. Incentivizing good behavior at the dentist’s office gives your child something positive to think about, instead of dwelling on the thoughts that bring them so much anxiety. Offer to get them a treat after the appointment, take them to do a fun activity they love, get them a toy they’ve been wanting. Giving your child an incentive for being calm at the dentist’s office not only helps keep their mind off of their fears but also creates a positive association with dentist trips. They begin to realize that they can earn something they enjoy or want when going to the dentist’s office, making the twice-a-year trips far less scary. It can make trips to the dentist something they look forward to!