26 Tips to Lower Your Child’s Dental Anxiety

Dental anxiety can develop in just about any child. It can originate from their past experiences or just their natural temperament and anxiety levels. Although going to the dentist can be difficult for some, avoiding the dentist can lead to many more problems later in life. These can include pain, infection, or loss of teeth unnecessarily. At We Care Dental Care in Roanoke VA, we strive to help create long term positive relationships between dentists and patients. Before starting my dental education, I got my bachelor’s degree in Psychology. I always like to integrate my background in psychology with my dental training to help my patients have the best experience possible. 

 1. Compliment someone’s smile that your child looks up to

 Motivating kids can be hard. Many times, they are focused on what they want right now and not what is best for the long term. This can make preventive activities like at-home brushing and professional dental cleaning to prevent future problems less motivating. One thing you can do is to find someone your child looks up to who also has a great smile. This could be a sports figure or even a superhero. Start pointing out how good their teeth are and then asking your child if they want to have nice teeth like them when they grow up.

 2. Have your child “pre-meet” the dentist on social media or videos

 If your dentist is active on social media, you can pre introduce your child to the doctor before their appointment. I have had many parents tell me that they showed their children my Facebook live videos so that they could get to know me a little bit before coming to my office.

 Check out our Facebook page here.

 I like to answer common questions parents have on Facebook. Just click the link to go to my page. You will find a long list of videos and topics I have already covered. 

 3. Do a meet and greet

At We Care Dental Care you can call in to do a meet and greet. This is a quick free tour of the office. During this time your child can see what everything looks like and can meet everyone they will be working with. This is also a great time to pick up your medical history paperwork so it is all taken care of before their real dental appointment comes.

 4. Show up early

Not only will this allow for time for new patient paperwork, but it will give your child time to relax and acclimate themselves to the dental office. As an adult, I think we tend to forget all these everyday experiences are new for little ones and are full of new sights and sounds. A child getting anxious might simply start from overstimulation and not fear. By allowing more time for your child to get used to the new situation you can increase their chances of having a smooth and easy appointment.

5. Roll-play at home

Pretend play is a natural way for children to learn new life skills. This might include the process for cleaning, X-rays, or an exam. By starting in a familiar place like your home you can guide your child through all the basic steps of a dental appointment. Starting at home will help keep them relaxed and comfortable. This helps to remove the fear of the unknown giving them more confidence at their next appointment.

6. Watch what you say

When I speak with a young patient, there are many terms I try to avoid, such as pain, blood, or needles. These words can be fear-inducing terms. You want to avoid priming your child to anticipate unnecessary pain or anxiety at the dental appointment.

I remember a study from one of my Psychology classes that showed two groups of people. They were both shown the same video of a car accident. The participants then had to estimate how fast the cars were going when they made contact. But there was one small difference between the two groups. One got the question "How fast were the cars when they hit?" the other asked, “How fast, were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" The “smashed” group estimated much higher speeds compared to the “hit” group even though they saw the exact same video. The words we use can have a powerful impact on the way we perceive the exact same events. Don’t let negative or fearful priming stop your child from having a positive dental appointment!

7. Let the dental team know about any past negative experiences

Has your child had a negative experience at another dentist or doctor's office? This is very helpful for me as the dentist and the rest of my team to know. This will help guide how we interact with your child, so we don't push them past their limit and trigger more anxiety and fear at future dental appointments.

8. Let the team know about sensory issues your child might have

Do loud noises or other stimuli trigger anxiety for your child? Let us know. We can try to accommodate as much as possible to avoid these unpleasant stimuli.

9. Too much time between dental visits

A common practice I see parents do when their child has some dental anxiety is to spread out appointments. This might seem like a great idea, but by seeing your dentist once a year instead of every six months, you can create a new problem. Not only is it possible for some dental problems to turn into larger ones, but your child may also forget the routine and familiarity of the last appointment. If this happens, you will be starting from scratch each appointment and never develop trust between your child and their dentist.

10. Fear of the unknown (Tell Show Do)

Many kids are not directly scared of the dentist, but they do have anxiety from being in a new experience. It is common for dentists to be trained in a process called “tell show do”. You can use the same method at home. Before actually doing any dental procedure or using a piece of equipment, you first tell or explain what you will be doing. Then you will visually show them the piece of equipment or process. Finally, you do what you have already demonstrated to the child. This straightforward process can help to quickly introduce your child to what will be happening in the dental office, without them feeling like they have no idea what to expect.

11.  Lean the chair all the way flat before your child lays back

This is something for the dental team to do, but I still feel it is helpful to know. Some children and even adults, feel a little strange if they are sitting back in a dental chair as it leans back. For some, this gives the sensation of falling and can be unpleasant. The fix for this is simple. Just lean the chair back so it is flat. Then have the child lay back on the reclined chair. They will still be in the perfect position for the dentist to do their exam but will not have a falling sensation that some patients have.

12.  Don’t wait for your child to be in pain before their first visit

Just like grandma always used to say, an ounce of prevention is equal to a pound of cure. At We Care Dental Care, we want to spot and prevent problems before they happen. By waiting until your child is already in pain before establishing a dental home, you might be creating a tough situation down the road. Ideally, you want your child’s first experience at the dentist to be simple and easy, like coming in for a cleaning and leaving with a bouncy ball or reward and a smile. If you wait to bring them in, they’ll arrive at their first dental appointment scared and in pain. There will be treatment that needs to be done urgently and the patient may not be willing to sit to get it done. This could leave sedation as your only option for getting the treatment done.

13.  Expect some fussing

Many children, my self-included, tried to test what we could get away with when we were little. If you don't want to be somewhere, you might throw a fit just get out of it. It is important to evaluate your child's behavior to see if they are actually scared, or if they are simply trying to get out of the situation.

14. Speak in terms a kid can understand

Depending on the age of your child, you might use very different phrasing to discuss a dental problem. I could tell a patient they have been ingesting copious amounts of refined carbohydrates. This is allowing the streptococcus mutan in their oral cavity to metabolize and produce low pH byproducts that are demineralizing their enamel.

Is this accurate? Yes. But is it understood? Most likely not.

For a younger child, you can try this: “You have a bunch of sugar bugs on your teeth. Have you ever seen a bug on a log making tunnels and soft spots? Well, the sugar bugs do the same thing to your teeth. You need to make sure you limit the amount of sugar you eat and drink. We want the sugar bugs to have less food to eat.”

15.  Lap to lap exams

Sometimes when a child is very young or very nervous, a lap to lap exam or cleaning is the best option. This method can also be used at home to help brush their teeth when the child is less cooperative.

All you will need is two chairs that are about equal height. The parent will sit in one chair with their child in their lap. Your child will be facing you like you are getting a hug. The dentist will take the opposite chair across from you and slide in so the parent and dentist's knees are almost touching. You can then lay the child back into the dentist's lap so that they will be supported by the dentist's legs. In this position, many children calm down and an exam and cleaning can be done safely and effectively.

16.  Bring a stuffed animal or a favorite toy

Sometimes there is one item in our house that makes us feel so much better. If your child has a favorite teddy bear or toy by bringing that to appointment it can make a world of difference.

17.  Incorporate dental storybooks at story time

There are some great books for children that will show them what will happen in a dental office. By seeing familiar characters go through dental treatment can be very reassuring for some children.

18.  Be mindful of nap time

I know I get cranky when I don't get enough sleep! I have had some patients who did great at one appointment and then six months later, they are far less cooperative. After doing a little investigation I found out that this second appointment was made during their normal nap time. When scheduling, please be mindful of when your child will do better in the chair. Typically, very young children do much better in the mornings.

19.  Let the team know if your child is prone to gagging

Please let our team know if your child is prone to gagging. The dental team can use different methods to help prevent and discomfort associated with gagging.

20.  Be careful of mixed messages from sibling or friends at school

Sometimes older siblings like to scare little brother or sister (I know my older brother did). Try to see if other siblings are telling stories that could scare younger siblings about dental visits. Similar to priming discussed above, you want to help your child understand what is actually going to happen at a dental visit, not some story big brother told them to scare them.

21.  Me mindful of your own anxieties

Some parents have had negative dental experiences in their past. They may even show up more nervous than their child for the dental appointment. Try to reassure your child that they will be fine and that the dentist and their team are there to help them.

22.  See if the dental office has smaller x-ray sensors

Not all offices will have this, but at We Care Dental Care, we have size 0 sensors. Some offices will only have larger sizes that can be very uncomfortable for smaller children. All x-rays at my office are 100% digital. This means that all of my patients are exposed to far less radiation.

23.  Make sure the dentist knows if your child has any physical limitations

Does your child have a physical limitation? Do they have a recent injury or other problem that could limit movement? Make sure to let the dental team know. We will work to accommodate your child’s needs.

24.  Be mindful of other appointments

I have had a few experiences where my patient just came from another doctor’s appointment and had gotten some shots or immunization. Not very surprisingly, when the same child sees someone with scrubs and a mask, they aren’t too thrilled. I completely understand trying to stack all your appointments into one day, but by trying to cram in too much, you might find your later appointments don’t go as planned.

25.  Voice control

This is not always easy to do but when a child starts to get fussy it can be tempting to want to raise your voice. If the child sees you get angry or frustrated, they feel like they have gained control of the situation. Another method is to speak more softly and slowly. This gives you some of the control back in the situation.

26.  Allow the dental team to take the lead

It is important to allow the dental team to do their jobs. We all have the same goal; we want your child to have healthy teeth and a great experience at We Care Dental Care. My team is trained and experienced in working with kids. Please allow the dental team the ability to do what needs to be done. If you listen and watch closely, you will most likely see many of the tips listed above used by my team. The basics like “Tell, show do”, word choice, and how we interact with your child all work together to give your child a better dental experience.

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