Everyone needs to go to the dentist at least twice a year to get a thorough cleaning and check for cavities and other problems. This task is stressful for many adults, and it is frequently terrifying for children. Experiencing anxiety at the dentist is not uncommon, but it doesn’t have to be a major hurdle to overcome. There are many ways to reduce your child’s feelings of fear and anxiety as they visit the dentist.
Offer Up Information and Share Your Experiences
One of the scariest aspects of going to the dentist is not knowing what to expect. Predictability is a great weapon against fear. Ask your child if they have any questions about what happens at the dentist, and answer all of them with gentle honesty. If they don’t have any more questions, offer up some information and experiences of your own, such as what sounds to expect and what they’re coming from, what kind of feelings and sensations they might experience during the cleaning or procedure, and what types of tools the dentist might use.
Avoid saying words that might frighten them, such as “pain,” “shot,” or “drill.” If you can’t avoid the topics, replace the words with more positive ones. For instance, instead of saying they’re going to get a shot, tell them that they’ll feel a little poke or a bug bite.
It’s also a good idea for your child and the dentist to discuss any concerns that they might have. The dentist can also teach them about the various tools and procedures used in the dentist’s office.
Building upon discussions of what goes on at the dentist’s office, it’s a good idea to be a role model for your child, and demonstrate the typical experience during a dentist visit. You can either let your child watch as you go in for your regular exam, or you can ask the dentist if it’s OK to perform a pretend examination on you for your child to observe. If your child is anxious about a specific procedure, such as a cavity filling, go over that procedure as well. If you choose to demonstrate a real examination or procedure, it’s important to show your child that you’re comfortable and calm. Instances of fear or pain during the demonstration will just reinforce their fears.
Teach Them Relaxation Techniques
Some children may not be able to overcome their anxious feelings through knowledge alone. In order to help tamp down the physical feelings of anxiety in your child, teach them relaxation techniques. Give them an MP3 player to listen to some relaxing music before or even during the exam. Tell them to slowly count backwards from 10 when their anxious feelings are getting the better of them.
Teach them deep-breathing exercises. Breathe in deeply, hold it for a second or two, and then breathe out slowly. Continue doing this cycle of breathing in a steady, rhythmic pace until they are calm.
Exercise is another useful relaxation tool. Before the appointment, play some sports with your child, go for a bike ride together or do some simple exercise routines to burn off some energy and help lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
One of the best ways to reduce anxiety is by taking your mind off of the event. Toys, books, and games are all great ways to help distract children and give them something fun to do before their appointment starts. That’s why many dentist offices have playrooms with toys, stuffed animals, books, and even televisions. You can let your child play in these playrooms before their exam starts, or you can bring their own toys and games. Thanks to smartphones and tablets, you can download and play many different video games with your child right in the lobby.
Use Positive Reinforcement
If your child walks away from the dentist correlating many of the events with positive outcomes, they will soon start finding dentist appointments to be positive experiences. Take note of every instance of good behavior or bravery, such as sitting still for an exam or making it through a possibly uncomfortable or painful procedure, and reward them with a sticker or trading card. You can even build up the rewards towards a bigger reward. For example, if they collect enough stickers, they can trade them in for a small toy.
Be There for Them
Simply having a parent present during the procedure or demonstration can work wonders for a child’s anxiety. Hold their hand, keep talking to them, even if they can’t respond verbally, and keep everything light and calm.
It’s important to slowly wean them off of your presence as they get older. After a few visits, stay outside of the room, and tell the dentist to call for you as soon as your child seems visibly anxious and requests for you to reenter. Keep up that routine until you’re able to spend the whole visit in the lobby. Remember to implement positive reinforcement throughout the process.
Only Visit Family-Oriented or Pediatric Dentists
Most dentists can work with children without many problems, but family-oriented and pediatric offices specifically tailor to children. They have bright and colorful offices, with plenty of children around to make your child seem less alone in their experience, and the dentists and hygienists know just how to talk to anxious children to make the more comfortable.
Dental anxiety in children is quite common, but also easily manageable. With these techniques, some patience, and a gentle approach, you can help significantly decrease or even eliminate your child’s dental anxiety over time.