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Dealing With Dental Anxiety in Your Child

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Going to the dentist feels like a waking nightmare for many kids. Your child lies on a chair with an alien light shining in their eyes, with some stranger poking and prodding at their mouth with metallic objects. The whirring, high-pitched drill sounds like the battle cry of a monster.

Your child's teeth are falling out. You've explained to them a million times that a new tooth will arrive after their baby teeth leave. The experience is new, and they freak out. Help your child cope with dental anxiety with the following tips.

1. Start With Early Visits

Children adapt quickly. It's best to start with early visits to the dentist to get your child used to their future “dental home.” Your child will have 20 new teeth by the time they're three, so take your child as soon as they begin to cut their first tooth.

2. Keep Details Simple

Keep details simple when preparing for your child's first visit. More details raise more questions, and more questions raise anxiety. You're explaining a big concept to your child, and their fear may get in the way of processing what that means.

For example, you may cause unnecessary dental anxiety if you go into big scary detail about a simple filling. If you say things like “It'll be fine,” you could risk losing your child's trust.

3. Remember That It’s All in How You Say It

When discussing details, be careful using three specific words with your child: hurt, shot and pain. Allow the dental office staff to introduce this vocabulary about their practice with your child. A helpful suggestion is to tell your child the dentist is looking for sugar bugs and will clean them away — or bacteria for the little scientists.

Focus on positive and neutral word choices to associate your child's visit to the dentist's office. You can say that the dentist will count all their teeth and check their smile for healthy and strong teeth.

4. Book an Imaginary Preliminary Appointment

Book a pretend appointment where your child plays both the patient and the dentist roles. Don’t lay out any scary looking dental instrument look-alikes or make unnecessary drill sounds. Your essential tool is a toothbrush that you use as you count each tooth using the alphabet. You can hold up a mirror to show how the dentist will look at their teeth, but keep it simple to get your child comfortable with the dental visit routine.

Let your child be the dentist and check your teeth and their stuffed animals’ teeth.

5. Don't Relate, Empathize

Isn't relating part of empathizing? To a degree, but your experience will not be your child's and vice versa. Be careful with taking your child to your adult dentist appointment. The experiences are different there, too.

Empathize with your child instead. Avoid “war stories” of root canals and extractions or how the scary dentist drill wasn't so scary after all. Remember, keep details simple and empathize with their fears and concerns. Don't project yours onto them.

Pediatric dentist offices make it their jobs to soothe kids and give them a great first impression during their visit, with kid-friendly books and posters about going to the dentist along with games and movies to entertain them while they wait. Dental anxiety is real: Intense-phobia prone children may benefit from audiovisual distraction during a dental procedure or mild and safe sedation options, including nitrous oxide.

6. Avoid Bribing

Bribing rarely works with anything else, so why try it with the dentist? Bribery is not positive reinforcement — you can't promise your kid candy if they don't cry, because you instantly put their mind in a place to expect something bad to happen and think that crying is a bad reaction. Besides, who gives their kid cavity-causing candy after seeing the dentist?

Kids have a spectrum of emotions they're learning to express and process. Positively reinforce your child with a kind and earnest compliment, and tell them you're proud of their bravery.

7. Keep in Mind That Tantrums Are Normal

Your child may be the most well-behaved tiny human, smiling at the dentist as soon as they walk in the room — then comes the bright shiny light on their face and the screaming.

Tantrums are normal. Remain calm, and reassure yourself by realizing the dentist office sees all sorts of tantrums from first-timers and regulars with dental anxiety. Hold your child's hand to comfort them if they want, but let the dentist handle the situation before you consider scooping up your baby and fleeing.

8. Stress the Need for Good Dental Hygiene

Taking a no-nonsense but empathetic stance from the start on the necessity of good dental hygiene will create a healthy tone for your kid to feel more okay about going to the dentist's office. Cultivate good habits early. A small, soft toothbrush should be used with a pea-sized dab of toothpaste. When they are done with brushing, positively reinforce the healthy behavior to turn it into a habit.

Though it may look scary at first, the visit to the dentist is a need, just like going to the doctor or buying healthy groceries. Stress that the dentist helps keep cavities away and keep teeth strong.

Dental anxiety is a common reaction, but your child will overcome their worries with a little empathy, understandable details and small steps. Emphasize good dental hygiene now to keep their sweet smiles cavity-free and happy.

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