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A fear of the dentist is one of the most common anxieties among children.   While just about every child will feel somewhat anxious about the process, as many as 20% of kids have a pronounced fear of going to the dentist. It can also be an excruciating issue for parents to deal with, and one of the most difficult fears to overcome. Nothing spells fun quite like trying to hold a convulsing child in a chair as they let out blood-curdling screams that one might mistake for torture cries. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Though a child’s fear of the dentist can be difficult to deal with, there are ways that parents can alleviate much of this anxiety so that dentist appointments go much more smoothly.

Fear contagion: How friends and family often stoke a child’s fear of the dentist

A fear of the dentist can be passed down from generation to generation and person to person through the ideas parents promote in the house, as well as those learned from classmates at school. For example . . .

  • Friends or siblings will say something like, “When you go to the dentist, he gives you shots” or “I hate the dentist, he drills your teeth out” when talking during play.
  • Parents might tell their kids about the shot they might get or say things like “it won’t hurt” which inadvertently conditions them toward the idea of pain.
  • Kids will overhear parents or other adults talking about how they hate the dentists.
  • Others will even directly stoke a child’s fears, saying things like, “You have to go to the dentist? Sucks to be you” or “uh-oh, sounds like someone’s going to get some cavities drilled.”
  • Worse still, dentists report that some parents will even mention them as a form of punishment, saying things like, “If you’re not good, you’ll have to go to the dentist.”

So the first step to overcoming a child’s fear of the dentist is to ensure you aren’t inadvertently stoking this anxiety yourself. Watch what you say in front of the kids, and try to work through your own fears, since parents tend to convey these emotions through their mannerisms. Never tease a child about going to the dentist or talk in a way that might provoke anxiety.

Fear of the dentist can also be self-reinforcing. A child visits the dentist and his fear causes him to freak out, which prompts more negative and invasive measures by adults, “like holding a child down.” The child’s fear and fussing create a negative memory which they then take with them into the next visit. For example, one little guy, Jake, though receiving laughing gas and Novocain, “was so freaked out that he cried almost the entire time he was in the dentist’s chair,” writes Jan Sheehan. “The next appointment was even harder for Jake, and the third one he needed a restraining jacket, was the worst. (Sheehan, 20013) Parents should be aware of how bad experiences can feed into a child’s fear the next time around, and do everything they can to prevent this pattern from developing.

How to overcome a child’s fear of the dentist·

Step 1: Find the source of the fear.

The obvious conclusion is merely to assume that a child fears the pain, and this might indeed be the case. Yet the pain dentists inflict, though real, is usually minor, and there can be many other sources for a child’s fears. Some kids are afraid of being able to breathe, others fear the dental tools, some may not like the bright light he uses, and young children are also prone to all types of other irrational fears, such as being afraid of the dentist’s glove. Some may have heard about the dentist’s drill, and envision the types of drills their daddy uses to cut large holes through wood.

Others can fear having to lay back in the dentist chair, which can feel like a vulnerable position for a child. Cynthia Weideman, D.D.S., says that “kids are sometimes afraid to lie down when they come to the dentist, because they’re afraid they’re going to choke.” Others might be scared by the noise of the drill, not the drill itself. In one circumstance, headphones or earplugs might help, whereas in another they would be completely useless. So take the time to sit down with your child and find out what, precisely, is bothering them.

Step 2: Prepare them for the process ahead of time

Anxiety over the unknown is often a primary driver of fear. So merely talking about what the process will be like ahead of time can help to alleviate a child’s fear of the dentist, especially if they’ve picked up imaginary ideas from peers. It also helps to talk up the value of good teeth and emphasize the dentist as a community helper who keeps us healthy. Here are some additional things parents can do in the period leading up to a dentist appointment to help alleviate a child’s fears:

A) Search for kids books about the dentist from your local library, and read these books to your kids.

B) Have kids practice brushing their teeth while lying down. It may help them grow more accustomed to the sensations of lying down in the dentist chair.

C) Play with them! Set up an area of your house to play dentist. Throw a sheet over a chair that sets at an angle, pull a lamp over to the area, and get out some cotton balls, Dixie cups, Q-tips, and fashion some other pretend dental tools out of non-metal items found around the house. Then take turns going back and forth playing the patient and the dentist, or invite a child’s friend over to play with them. It should be a fun play activity, and playing out different scenarios is a child’s natural way of relieving anxiety.

D) Emphasize the positive or cool aspects of the dental experience. For example, you could point out how a dentist’s work area resembles the inside of a spaceship and how their utilities look like space tools. You could talk about x-rays as being like x-ray vision, or mention how cool you think their suction tool is. These examples will only work if your child is really into spaceships or cool technology, but there’s a way to adapt the nuances of the dental experience to the interests of just about any child.

Additional tips for helping children overcome fear of the dentist

  • Don’t avoid visits because of a child’s fear. Studies find that kids who have regular checkups are less likely to struggle with anxiety than kids who go less often. (Sheehan, 2008)

See also: Making dentist appointments easier on kids.

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