Dental anxiety affects up to 20 percent of American adults, and odds are good many of them learned those fears in childhood. (If you’re one of those adults, check out our list of tips for feeling more comfortable at the dentist.) Research suggests approximately nine percent of children exhibit anxiety about going to the dentist, which may range in severity from a simple case of nerves to screaming and crying on the way to the dentist’s chair.
Several factors can influence childhood dental anxiety, including age, gender, personality traits, and past experiences at the dentist. Younger children, girls, children who are prone to shyness or anxiety in unfamiliar spaces, and children who have experienced pain or unfriendly treatment at the dentist’s office are especially likely to exhibit dental anxiety, but the reality is that any child might fear the dentist for a variety of reasons.
Another reality? When you’re the parent of a child who throws a fit every time you schedule an appointment at the dentist, it can get old fast. But impatience will get you nowhere when it comes to helping a child manage their dental anxiety. What will help your child not dread the dentist? The following five strategies.
Normalizing dental hygiene will make it easier to explain to your child why they should go to the dentist in the first place. If you regularly discuss why it’s important to brush and floss, then your child should be able to grasp why it’s also important to see the dentist. You don’t have to make it scary (“If you don’t go to the dentist, all your teeth will fall out!”). Instead, simply explain that the dentist will help keep their teeth strong, healthy, and feeling good. Even young children appreciate having an explanation for the things they’re asked to do rather than simply being forced to do it.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends bringing your child to the dentist as soon as their teeth begin to appear or around their first birthday. Starting early allows your child to get in the habit of going to the dentist and decreases the chances of your child developing severe dental anxiety down the road. It also helps ensure your child maintains a healthy mouth so they’re less likely to need anxiety-inducing treatments.
Pediatric dentists specialize in treating children and adolescents, but they’re not the only option for children. The most important thing is to go to a dental office with friendly front desk staff, hygienists, and dentists who enjoy working with children and will help your child feel more comfortable if they’re dealing with anxiety. Once you find a hygienist and dentist that your child likes, consider booking every appointment with the same duo so your child can look forward to seeing them at appointments.
If your child is feeling especially nervous, then they may not be up for heading to the exam room on their own. Staying by their side (and maybe even holding their hand) can help them feel calmer during the appointment. You might also consider bringing along a favorite toy, book, music player, or stuffed animal to provide your child with the comfort of familiarity.
If you yourself suffer from dental anxiety, revealing those fears in front of your child is only going to heighten their own worries. As much as possible, try to model enthusiasm for oral hygiene and regular dental visits. Avoid using potentially scary words such as “hurt” or “shots”, and don’t complain about having to go to your own dental appointments. Try to make dental visits seem like no big deal and maintain a positive attitude before, during, and after both your and your child’s appointments. This way, you’ll normalize positivity about the dentist within your household.
To further build positive associations with the dentist, try to do something fun with your child after every visit. That combined with the preceding strategies will help ensure that your child’s dental visits are as effective and positive as possible.