Dental anxiety among children is quite common but can be especially frustrating for new parents, or parents of multiple children while managing proper dental hygiene throughout childhood. The fear of seeing a medical professional of any kind is entirely normal, just like fearing monsters under the bed and closet before bedtime. Many children quickly grow out of this fear after a few harmless and straightforward visits to the dentist, while others may manifest this fear into something more. Children unable to cope with their fear of the dentist can potentially develop deep-rooted anxiety that can make regular dental visits an ordeal for both parent and child. Rest assured, pediatric dentists are trained to deal with situations like these and have the tools to help parents and children deal with dental anxiety and eventually overcome it, in some cases.
What is Dental Anxiety?
About 20% of children develop dental anxiety that escalates from a natural or preliminary dread of the dentist. This advanced level of fear presents itself as anxiety symptoms, including cardiac events, sweating, shortness of breath, fainting, trembling, and loss of sensation or pins and needles in hands, arms, feet, or legs. Every child will experience and exhibit their anxiety signs differently, but it can be a distressful event for everyone involved. Dental phobia should be taken seriously, with kids as well as with adults. Failing to address dental phobia or anxiety can cause many problems, from trust instability between child, parent, and dentist, to oral health neglect due to the severity of panic episodes that come with every dentist visit. Dealing with dental anxiety can be tricky; however, there are a few proven steps that can be taken to avoid or resolve the issue before involving behavioral health professionals.
Here are some tips to help prevent or mediate any dental anxiety a child may have:
Inform them. Even at an early age, children are like sponges when it comes to absorbing information. Something as simple as reading books to children that involve positive dental stories or topics can help introduce them to the idea of dental care in a non-threatening way. There are many short stories and children’s books that have been published for this precise cause, having the main character or protagonist go through their first dental visit, and exploring all of the events, emotions, and results of a checkup.
Start early. Getting kids to the dentist can seem like an ordeal at first, but experts agree that every child should see a pediatric dentist by the age of 1, and can start as early as six months after their first tooth appears. A child’s first visit to the dentist will be quick, but a great way to familiarize them with the process and the environment at a dentist’s office. Creating positive experiences early on can make a world of difference for future interactions.
Play dentist. With so many options in regards to children’s toys, dentistry sets for kids are a good option to familiarize young ones with the tools dentists use for routine visits. Much like children enjoy playing “house” or “grocery store,” playing the role of a dentist could also be a fun game where a parent visits the child’s clinic confidently and with no fear, setting a good example.
Show by example. If a child sees or hears that their own parents dread going to the dentist, or put it off altogether, they will likely adopt the same mindset. If a parent is adamant about oral hygiene and encourages regular checkups as a non-negotiable event that occurs every six months, children are likely to become accustomed to the routine. They will not develop as much fear or anxiety because they know that they had a great checkup recently and have upheld proper brushing and flossing habits since. This will happen most often as they model their parent’s attitudes towards dental hygiene, practices, and routine visits.
Dealing with dental anxiety once it has already manifested can be much more difficult, there are several tips for parents to handle this situation, should it occur:
Don’t make a fuss. It’s natural to want to prepare a child mentally before their office visit, but sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. Surrounding the event with too much pressure or nervousness will only increase the child’s apprehensiveness around the appointment.
Use simple words. Avoiding dramatic words and terms with a negative connotation like “shot,” “pain,” “hurt,” and any others that may strike fear into a child can help them with the process of overcoming their initial fear, especially while sitting in the waiting room.
Don’t react. Parents have an instinct to respond to a child’s experience, especially when they are in pain viscerally. It’s an evolutionary trait that bonds parents to their offspring. Adults who are sensitive to their children’s reactions should consider staying in the waiting room as not to influence anxious behavior.
Brace for tantrums. If a child’s dental anxiety is on the more severe end, there will need to be precautions in place in the event of a panic attack or tantrum. Parents who can stay calm and who have a plan in place are frequently able to diffuse the situation much more quickly and confidently than parents who react in anger and frustration, often making the blowup much worse.
Seek alternative options. In the most extreme cases, if a child needs essential dental work done, some pediatric dentists will offer conscious sedation to help a child deal with their intense dental anxiety. It’s more commonly known as laughing gas, but this type of conscious sedation is generally harmless and can make the process of a dental visit less traumatic for everyone involved.
No parent wants to see their child in distress, but some children will develop dental anxiety as they grow up, whether it’s caused by stories from other children at school or a single bad experience. There are ways to prevent this behavior and different ways to handle it if it should occur. Overall, it’s best to deal with dental anxiety than to avoid it by neglecting a child’s oral hygiene, as it can impact their overall health and future.