Overcoming Dental Anxiety

Some kiddos might bound into a dental exam room and hop right up into the chair, but not every child has that amount of enthusiasm for visiting the dentist. Others are more hesitant and won't make eye contact or cling tightly to a parent’s hand.

For the shy ones, a number may simply be more reserved in general, but for those in whom seeing the dentist causes anxiety, parents and their dental provider may need to step in and reassure the child that a visit to the dentist is no big deal.

Following this line of thought, the first thing parents can do is to avoid talking about drills, needles or pain in conjunction with going to the dentist. Almost all pediatric dentists only use those tools as a last resort and would prefer children focus on preventative care instead.

Parents who have had a negative experience with their own dentist can help their child by not projecting that fear onto their son or daughter before a visit to the dentist. "Many children have never had an experience with the dentist, so they don't know what [a visit to] the dentist really means yet," said Dr. Jonathan Norris of Montshire Pediatric Dentistry in Keene. "They will look to their parents or friends or siblings to see how they should or shouldn't react. If kids perceive from a parent something isn't right, then they will act in a certain way." With parental encouragement, by the time parent and child arrive for their appointment the dental staff and the family are already on the same team. At practices like Montshire Pediatric Dentistry, the office is set up to look more like “Grandma's house” than a sterile medical office, which could raise angst. Then the staff begins assessing the child as soon as their name is called and is ready to take as much time as necessary to make their young patient feel comfortable. "When I enter a room, all my energy is on the child," Dr. Norris said. "With a more reserved child I will go slower and start by finding common ground. With a 3-year-old it, might be talking about their sparkly shoes; a 5-year-old, we might be talking about learning to play soccer.

“I want to gain their trust. Trust is earned and kids are trusting and generally want to do the right things and help you, but you don't want to violate that." At many pediatric dentist offices, children are allowed to ask questions or raise their hand if they start to feel uncomfortable. They can look at the tools before starting or hold a mirror and watch what is going on. Parents should feel that they can ask their child’s dentist to do the same if they think it will help with their child’s experience. One thing Dr. Norris said Montshire employs is four-minute dentistry. He described it as passing instruments back and forth and getting the exam and the procedure done as quickly and efficiently as possible before children reach what Dr. Norris called their coping line, where the experience just becomes too much.

Parents might recognize this as the moment at Sunday church services when kiddos start bouncing up and down and loudly chattering, or that time in the grocery store trip when they try to climb out of the cart and make a break down the aisle. It shouldn't be a surprise that time in the dentist chair would also reach a limit.

For help handling this, pediatric dentist offices, which are used to working with children every day, can offer an edge over an adult-centric dental office.

Another option to help set children up for success is to bring a comfort item from home. A blanket or doll might offer reassurance and familiarity in an unfamiliar situation. "Anything that makes the experience as easy as possible for the child, like a blanket or stuffy, is absolutely fine," Dr. Norris said.

A special toy can make a particular experience pass smoothly, however, it would be wise to consider the dental experience across the years. Typically, children see the dentist just twice per year, which means the overwhelming majority of dental care takes place at home.

Generally, pediatric dentists focus on prevention, giving families one or two things to work on and improve between visits. This way parents can help their children form good dental habits that last a lifetime. "I want to see kids as early as possible, which is usually by age one, or six months after the eruption of the first tooth,” Dr. Norris said. “Children can come in and see that it isn't a big deal. We can start conditioning those in the 1- to 2-year-old crowd so later when the mask and gloves come on, they don't start to cry because they think it is time for a shot.

"At the end of the day we are teaching resiliency and trying to help children reach their potential," Dr. Norris added. "… We want to break the negative cycle of visiting the dentist so that children think the dentist is fun."