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A Guide to Supporting Children’s Dentist Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues experienced by children. Symptoms of anxiety in children can include clinginess, upset stomachs, and temper tantrums. Going to the dentist is the cause of anxiety for many kids. Studies say that up to 20% of kids have significant amounts of anxiety regarding going to the dentist. Parents naturally want to protect their children from the things that scare them, but kids need to go to the dentist. Pediatric dentists are trained at helping kids deal with their feelings about undergoing dental exams and procedures, but parents also play an important role in helping their kids cope with anxiety. Good coping mechanisms can help kids navigate dental appointments and reduce the fear that they experience.

What Is Causing the Child’s Anxiety?

Managing anxiety requires understanding what’s causing the anxiety. Sometimes, there’s no one thing. Other times, kids have very specific fears and triggers. For example, many kids hate the feeling of their breathing being obstructed, and the classic position of a patient on their back with their mouth open triggers that feeling for a lot of kids. Another issue for many kids is the feeling of powerlessness: Someone has their hands in their mouth, and they can’t move. Dentists who teach kids hand signals they can use if they are distressed or who give them a remote control and allow them to watch television during the exam may be able to help kids control that anxiety. Many kids are also afraid of pain. If a previous dental appointment was painful, the child will worry that they are going to experience that again.

One of the hardest kinds of anxiety to help kids cope with is simply general fear, for which there’s no one specific trigger. Perhaps it’s because an older cousin or sibling described a dentist appointment scarily, or maybe the smells, sounds, and light of the dentist’s office bother the child. Some kids are simply anxious because they aren’t sure what’s going to happen to them during the appointment.

Help Kids Overcome Their Fear of the Dentist

Kids whose fear of the dentist isn’t addressed can end up avoiding the dentist and even letting their oral health care slide. The end result can be serious dental issues. But parents can help address this anxiety and set their kids up for lifelong good oral health by following a few simple tips. The first is to take the child to the dentist for regular checkups. Going every six months can help an anxious child get used to the experience. Children should start going to the dentist by their first birthday or when their first tooth emerges.

The dentist children go to also makes a big difference. Pediatric dentists are trained to make appointments as easy on children as possible. Some children will do better with certain practices than others. A child who gets overwhelmed by noise and bright colors may find a loud, bright office overwhelming and prefer a quieter, calmer atmosphere. Dental appointments also should never be sprung on a child. Telling them in advance and talking them through the steps of an appointment can help ease their fears. However, don’t overshare. A child who is about to have a cavity filled doesn’t need details about how the dentist will use a drill on their tooth.

Another important way for parents to teach their children coping mechanisms is by modeling good oral health habits and attending their own dentist appointments. Talking about these things is a great way to take away some fears. Stressing good oral health habits at home helps prevent children from needing painful procedures, which also will help ease children’s anxiety. Until a child is about 8, a parent should help them brush. Songs about brushing and flossing can help encourage kids who are reluctant to do it, as can a chart where they earn stickers for brushing their teeth.

Additional Anxiety Resources


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