What to Do When Your Child Is Terrified of the Dentist

What to Do When Your Child Is Terrified of the Dentist
Photo: AKIRA_PHOTO, Shutterstock

As we emerge from our pandemic cocoons and begin catching up on all the things we either purposefully put off or simply couldn’t fathom attempting over the past year, we may come to the realisation that it’s been way too long since a dentist has seen the inside of our kid’s mouth. Whether they’ve got their first-ever visit coming up or it’s been a while since their last cleaning, they may be feeling some anxiety about sitting in the big chair.

If so, there are some things you can do in advance to make the experience less painful for them (and you).

Start ‘em early

Chances are, you need to take your child to the dentist sooner than you think (when their first tooth appears or by their first birthday, at the latest). If you start these visits early, before they even really know what’s going on, they’ll become accustomed to the office and the procedures — and it’s less likely they’ll develop a fear of them.

If you’ve waited a bit longer, though, and they’re not sure what to expect, you can try doing a little dental role-playing at home. The next time they’re getting ready to brush their teeth, pretend to be the dentist, inspecting and counting their teeth with the toothbrush — and then let them take a turn with you or a favourite doll or stuffed animal. Turning it into a game can help ease some of their anxiety over the unknown.

Opt for a pediatric dentist

The dentist you’ve been going to all of your adult life is probably great, but if your child is feeling anxiety about the experience, your best bet is to take them to a pediatric dentist.

Pediatric dentists, as the name implies, specialise in the oral health of children. They have all kinds of tricks for helping to ease a child’s stress, they use the best non-threatening language to describe the instruments, and they’re practiced at telling stories and engaging kids in a way that distracts from the actual cleaning. Plus, a pediatric dentistry office is likely a brighter, cheerier, more welcoming place for a child than the more sterile white walls in your dentist’s office.

Wade in slowly

If your child gets especially nervous in new situations or in new places, you might consider visiting the office with them before their appointment so they can check out the toys in the waiting room and meet the dentist before sitting in the big chair.

You can also have them accompany you to your next appointment so they can watch your teeth being cleaned and get an introduction to all the strange sounds the tools make without being in that vulnerable mouth-open position themselves. (This is assuming you don’t have anxiety about going to the dentist — if you do, leave them at home.)

If you know they’re still going to be nervous, it’s good to let the office know this ahead of time so they can be prepared with their most soothing tactics. And choose an appointment time when they are most likely to be well-rested, well-fed, and in the best possible mood.

Avoid fuelling their anxiety

Particularly if your child has a procedure coming up, such as a cavity filling, avoid using words like “pain,” “hurt,” or “shot.” If they have questions, keep your answers as straightforward and simple as possible, focusing on the goal — strong, healthy teeth. The dentist can be the one to give more in-depth answers, as they’re skilled at describing dental procedures in a kid-friendly way.

If you’re nervous because you know they are nervous — or because you, too, are not a fan of the dentist — bury those feelings down deep. They will pick up on any anxiety you display, so try to have a positive attitude about the experience yourself.

You may be tempted to promise them a reward for getting through the visit, but this can actually backfire: If you’re promising them a treat for being brave or having a good visit, that must mean it will be hard or scary in some way — because if it’s not a big deal, there would be no reason to promise them a reward, right? Kids pick up on those types of nuances, and it might start them worrying about why they wouldn’t have a good visit.

(You can reward them afterward if you want — just don’t promise it beforehand.)

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