How to Deal With Your Child’s Dental Anxiety

Is every dentist appointment like pulling teeth? A few tips on how to make your child's next trip to the dentist a positive experience

Illustrated by Anke Weckmann

Illustrated by Anke Weckmann

Ever since she was a kid, Chris Giovanni* didn’t like going to the dentist. The sound of the drill, and the needles made her anxious about each visit. Now, her eight-year-old son, Julien, is in the same boat. “Even before he had cavities, he didn’t like the experience. He is sensitive and aware that people don’t like it there. The environment isn’t very comforting,” says the Hamilton, Ont., mom. Add in that the cotton rolls used during mouth x-rays make Julien gag, and the stage is set for an uncomfortable dental experience.

Chris and Julien aren’t alone. Joyce Levitt, DDS, who practices dentistry in Milton, Ont., and completed a Master’s degree in cognitive and behavioural psychotherapy focusing on dental anxiety, says that more than 75 per cent of people are afraid to visit the dentist. “People often feel no control at the dentist, they feel they can’t help or protect themselves. In children, there is an innate fear of the unknown, which can be a good thing,” says Dr. Levitt. “But when it comes to dentistry, we’re looking to minimize that natural weariness.”

Keep Your Own Dental Fears in Check

Interestingly, research published in the September 2012 issue of the International Journal of Paediatric Dentistry found that dental anxiety can be passed on from parents to children aged 7–12. “If parents are nervous, that negative energy is very quickly and powerfully transferred to their young children,” agrees Natalie Archer, DDS, a family dentist in Toronto. So do your best to censor any comments about your own fears of the dentist or have a non-anxious spouse or grandparent take the child to those appointments, says Dr. Levitt.

Read more: 4 Things to Know About Your Child’s Oral Health

Prepare Your Child Before She Steps Into the Dentist’s Office

Be honest about what will happen during a dentist appointment, such as: “The dentist will ask you to sit in a chair and the dentist will use a small mirror to count all your teeth and make sure they are healthy.”

Giving kids the appropriate information can make all the difference. “It’s important to give the kids a positive, realistic minimal explanation,” says Dr. Levitt. “Let the dentist explain things before doing anything.” Parents do not need to do a lot of preparation, she adds. “I explain the procedure to the child or adult in appropriate terms and with the correct amount of detail depending on their anxiety level before each procedure.”

She also lets kids know that she will be asking how they are doing during the procedure. “They are to give me a thumbs up if okay and thumbs down if not okay,” says Dr. Levitt.

Make the Dentist a Positive Experience

If your child is already afraid of the dentist, Dr. Levitt notes that “six positive experiences are typically required to replace one negative experience.” Distraction can be a useful tool for managing anxiety—from your child simply chatting with the hygienist to thinking about a more pleasant experience, such as a recent birthday party. Some pediatric dentist offices now have televisions mounted on the wall and kids can choose which program or movie they would like to watch during the procedure.

Another option is to associate going to the dentist with something fun afterwards, so the children look forward to it. This can include going to a special park or visiting friends. Also, focusing on prevention is important so that a child’s overarching experience with the dentist is one of dental maintenance, which is positive, or at least neutral.

Find the Right Dentist For Your Child’s Needs

For Julien, visits to the dentist are improving. Giovanni gives Julien plenty of notice before a dentist appointment—at least one week—so he isn’t caught off guard. She says this gives “lots of time to feel the feelings.” Giovanni says that their dentist’s excellent chair-side manner also plays a role. The dentist explains everything to Julien, and the hygienists give positive feedback like, “You’re so courageous” and “Look how great he’s doing, Mom!” which keeps Julien calm.

One last thing to consider: “If a patient is going to a dentist where they’re continually afraid,” says Dr. Archer, “then the family needs to try another dental office.”

*Name has been changed

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