Did you know nearly 20% of school-aged children are afraid of the dentist? That means one out of every five children experiences a real and fearful response at the thought of sitting in the dentist’s chair. Anxiety is the human body’s physical and emotional response when confronted with a situation the brain perceives as dangerous — even if it’s not dangerous at all.
Although many children experience pediatric dental anxiety because of an unpleasant dental experience, many young children are afraid of the dentist for less obvious reasons. Young children are still learning about the world and how it works.
A lot of things are scary for kids simply because those at a young age can’t know or understand everything. A child may not have personally experienced a negative visit to the dentist. But if their friend next door describes having a cavity drilled and filled in great detail, the child hearing the story may develop fears of visiting the dentist.
Regular dental visits are crucial for children because dentists play a critical role in helping children develop good oral hygiene habits. Dentists can also help prevent or treat small problems before they become big issues that will follow a child around for the rest of their life.
A parent’s natural instinct is to protect their child from real and perceived dangers — but what do you do when your child freaks out about visiting the dentist? Rather than just skipping the appointment, parents need to work to understand their child’s fears. Use the guide below to develop a plan for easing a child’s fear about the dentist so they can safely and calmly make it through regular dental checkups.
What Is Your Child Afraid Of?
The first step to managing dental anxiety in children is to identify why they are afraid of the dentist. Sometimes there is no particular reason for a child’s fears. But most children who struggle with dental anxiety do so because they have a fear of:
1. Obstructed Breathing
During a dental visit, patients have their mouths open during the exam itself, as well as during the cleaning. This position can make it difficult to breathe conventionally, especially if a child is prone to breathing through their mouth. If a child has undergone a dental procedure where they also had gauze or instruments in their mouth for any length of time, the memory of feeling like breathing was more difficult — even if it wasn’t — may be enough to cause anxiety the next time they head to the dentist.
Laying in a dental chair with another person’s hands in their mouth can cause a child to feel like they have no control. If something hurts or feels uncomfortable, they may be unable to communicate that effectively if their mouth is obstructed.
This state can be scary for a child because they are unable to engage the natural instinct to remove themselves from a scary or painful situation. A good family-friendly dentist will offer children ways they can still maintain some control during their appointment. The dentist might provide kids with a hand signal to show when something hurts or give them control over a television remote to use during a dental cleaning.
A dentist works hard to be gentle with every patient, regardless of age. But there are times where something may hurt or just feel unpleasant, especially in the case of a dental procedure.
Perhaps your child has had dental work done by a dentist who was not gentle or did not medicate them appropriately before a procedure. That experience may cause dental anxiety even when kids are simply going to the dentist for a checkup. If a child does need to have a dental procedure, sedation practices can be used to reduce their awareness of what’s happening or the amount of pain and discomfort they feel.
4. Unexplained Fear
There are times when it is difficult to pinpoint what causes a child to feel anxiety over a trip to the dentist. Maybe they heard another child or adult describe a painful dental procedure. Maybe they have a sensory issue that makes it difficult to handle the sounds and smells of a dental office. Or maybe they are just fearful because they don’t know what to expect.
Fear of the unknown is a legitimate cause of dental anxiety. If a child hasn’t undergone regular dental checkups or they’ve gone too long in between visits, they may not know what to expect. Or they may not remember what happened at their last visit.
How to Help Kids Overcome Fear of the Dentist
What happens if dental anxiety isn’t addressed early on? Children avoid dental care that can protect their teeth and prevent serious problems from developing. This absence of dental care increases a child’s risk of developing cavities. If left unattended, cavities can lead to problems with teeth, including pain and discomfort. In some cases, the offending tooth may have to be pulled.
As children grow older, if they have problems with their teeth and gums, they also become more self-conscious, whether it be related to how they speak, eat, talk or smile. And researchers have even found that students with more dental problems tend to miss more school than their peers.
Although you can’t always prevent dental anxiety, it’s important for parents and dentists to team up and work together to help children overcome dental anxiety at a young age. Failure to recognize and address dental anxiety can have a profound
and lasting impact on a child’s oral health, especially if parents use their child’s anxiety as an excuse to avoid regular dental checkups.
So what helps with dental anxiety in children? When coping with dental anxiety in children, it’s not enough to just order them to visit the dentist or tell them to “get over it.” Parents need to take a very intentional and focused approach to help their children work through and overcome their fear.
If you’re wondering what to do about your child’s dental anxiety, follow these tips:
1. Schedule Regular Dental Checkups
Children who are prone to dental anxiety need to visit the dentist regularly to overcome their fears. While you don’t need to be there every week, make a point to maintain a regular schedule of dental checkups every six months. This regularity allows the child to become familiar with the dentist, the office staff and the office itself. By providing a child with a familiar environment, they are more likely to develop a sense of security and safety when they visit the dentist.
The American Dental Association recommends a child have their first dental visit after their first tooth appears or by their first birthday — whichever milestone occurs first. Early visits establish a baseline for a child’s oral health and make it more likely a dentist can detect problems before they become serious. Starting regular dental visits early also teaches a child that the dentist is a regular part of their life. By making dental visits “ordinary,” children are less likely to feel anxious when it’s time for a checkup.
2. Choose the Right Dentist
Choosing the right dentist for your child is also important. Parents should find a dentist who works well with children, especially children with dental anxiety. But sometimes it’s about more than the dentist.
The environment may also play a role in a child’s ability to relax during a dentist’s visit. Look around at their office. Is the office noisy? Can children see or hear other patients during their appointments? Is the office filled with bright c
olors or soft, relaxing colors? For many children, especially those prone to sensory issues, even something as small as hearing the hum of dental instruments may be enough to trigger their anxiety.
Even if you find a good dentist who is great with children, that doesn’t mean they are the right fit for your child. If a child associates a certain dentist with a painful procedure or visit, they may experience anxiety when they see them, even if that dentist is one of the best. If you suspect your child’s anxiety is associated with a particular dentist or the environment in a certain dental office, seek out a new practice that can offer dental anxiety treatment options for your child.
3. Give Fair Warning
When a child becomes anxious over an upcoming dental appointment, many parents are tempted to keep the appointment a secret until the last minute. But there are better ways to ease your child’s dental fear. Giving a child advance notice of an upcoming appointment allows them time to process their anxiety.
Encourage kids to ask questions and spend time talking about what to expect at the appointment. If your child is going in for a checkup, remind them what will happen — brushing teeth, an exam, X-rays and other procedures. If they are going to the dentist for a procedure, call the office ahead of time and ask for a clear description of what will happen. You can then help familiarize your child with what the procedure involves.
4. Tread Carefully
Although you need to be honest and open with children about what’s happening at the dentist, it’s also crucial not to provide too many details. For example, if a child will be having a cavity filled, avoid telling them about the dentist “drilling” their tooth or other imagery that may evoke thoughts of pain or discomfort. If you aren’t sure what the dentist will be doing, most dental offices will be happy to provide you with the information you need to talk with your child.
5. Set a Good Example
Parents who visit the dentist regularly and emphasize good oral hygiene can help ease pediatric dental anxiety. After all, if visits to the dentist are something parents do without trouble, children can find confidence in that. In some cases, it can be good to allow a child to watch their parent at the dentist.
But parents should exercise caution in bringing children to dental appointments. If you’re concerned something is wrong with your oral health that you want a dentist to address, you probably don’t want your child there. It won’t help put a child at ease if they have to witness their parent having a cavity filled or tooth pulled. And, if you are also prone to dental anxiety, it’s best to leave your child at home where they can’t witness your own anxious behavior.
6. Emphasize Good Oral Hygiene at Home
There are many reasons why children experience dental anxiety. But it’s particularly common for kids to have dental anxiety after they’ve had a procedure done. They will associate the dentist with pain and discomfort after that experience. Parents can reduce the likelihood a child will need dental procedures at a young age by emphasizing habits that will protect a child’s teeth and gums. Brushing twice a day, flossing once a day and eating foods that are low in sugar are all great ways to prevent the need for dental intervention.
It’s essential to teach young children good brushing techniques. Parents should oversee brushing until children are between 6 and 8 years of age to ensure children are brushing thoroughly. If your child seems to be resistant to brushing or is struggling to learn good brushing techniques, consider ways to encourage them. Using songs and videos about brushing teeth can help you teach your children about good oral hygiene habits.
Prevent a Pediatric Dental Visit Disaster With Family Dentistry of New Jersey
Dental anxiety in children can be a source of confusion and frustration for parents. It can be difficult to understand why children are afraid and figure out the best way to help them overcome those fears. At Family Dentistry of New Jersey, we’re committed to helping all of our patients overcome their dental anxiety and live their best life with healthy teeth and gums. We take a patient-centered approach to dentistry, meaning we put our patients first.
If you have a child with dental anxiety, we’re ready to help. Schedule an appointment at our Howell, New Jersey, office today.