Alleviating Fear of the Dentist

October 16, 2023, Kyle Isaacs

Not everyone has the opportunity to visit the dentist when they are little, but having early dental care not only helps prevent problems and can find problems before there is pain, but it also helps build good relationships with dental providers, which helps make visits easier for kids. Without these early and good experiences, some kids are more likely to be fearful.  Fear and anxiety about dental treatment can also come from family and friends who might say negative things about going to the dentist. Worries can also happen if a child has had a bad dental office experience. Early childhood traumas can make going to the dental office scary for some people.  When kids and adults have these fears, often they will not go to the dentist unless there is pain. This is not a healthy way of dealing with oral care. Focusing on preventing fears and bad experiences when the kids are small is better.

For adults and even older kids who are scared or have had a bad experience, talking about dental care negatively will only make your child more afraid. The more fear our kids have, combined with your own fears, will make it even more difficult to take them for preventive visits.

Other kids in the house can also talk negatively about dental appointments and treatments, instilling fear. We know everyone is different, and some kids will just be relaxed and take it all in, while others will struggle to do the easiest things in the dental chair. I remember a 4-year-old patient I had and how fearful he was. This was many years ago, early in my career. We had to go slow and ease him into procedures. Over time and with the support of us and his family, he learned to love to see us. When I worked at this dental office before moving to Oregon, I would see him as an adult and remind him of our first time together, and he did not remember how scared he was. So, consistent and positive appointments help a lot. Some research shows that firstborn and only children tend to feel more anxious about dental treatment. So, this is something to consider.  And the first time you see a new provider in any healthcare setting, we are strangers to your kids. Some kids will need to get to know their dental provider first to feel safe and not fearful.

For the adults: As a dental professional who loves to help people, hearing how much people “hate the dentist” can be challenging. If you tell your provider that you are nervous about dental treatment, it would be helpful for them to ask what has helped you in the past when you had dental treatment. If they have never asked, you could offer to share with them what has helped. Maybe it is a weighted blanket (even the lead apron) or something to listen to. Maybe you don’t like the polishing paste because it is so gritty.  Let them know, and you can perhaps brainstorm an idea that would satisfy both of you. When I see my patients, I tell them they are in control. They can ask me to stop whenever they need to by raising their hand to let me know. Talking about your fears and bad experiences in the dental office with children will likely instill fear in them. This means appointments can take longer and can be more stressful for everyone.

Here are some helpful hints to help alleviate fears:

  • It is never recommended to threaten your kids into brushing their teeth by saying that they might have to go to the dentist for fillings. This makes the dentist and fillings sound like a punishment. This can start with dental fear and anxiety issues.
  • Before taking your child to the dentist for their first appointment, it would be good for adults and siblings to check their attitudes regarding the dentist and be careful about what is said.
  • Meet the dental provider and do not have any treatment done. This is the beginning of building trust and a good relationship, which can go a long way in helping to alleviate fears.
  • Getting supplies from your dental provider to take home and having your child practice putting them in their mouths. This could be a cotton roll, gauze, the suction tip, a disposable mouth mirror, or the polisher rubber cup.
  • Think about a first visit to see the office, go for a ride in the chair, and touch some of the tools.
  • Getting your child used to having someone clean their mouth when they are a baby will help them to feel more comfortable having dental professionals doing their job. This can mean using a clean, wet washcloth on your finger to clean the gums daily and then transitioning to the toothbrush when the first tooth comes into the mouth.

Another way to help your little one feel less scared and more excited about seeing the dentist is to read books about visiting the dentist before their visit. Here are a few you can find in your local library:

  • “Just Going to the Dentist” by Mercer Mayer follows the Little Critter series. The main character is preparing for their first visit to the dentist and details the process of teeth cleaning, dental X-rays, and even how a cavity is filled. If your child is only going in for a regular checkup and cleaning, you may want to skip the cavity section of the book.
  • “My Dentist, My Friend” by P.K. Hallinan helps to eliminate the “scary dentist” mentality many children have. This book will guide your child through the entire dental appointment process, giving them insight into what they can expect and why there’s nothing to fear when visiting the dentist’s office.
  • “Show Me Your Smile!: A Visit To The Dentist” by Christine Ricci lets your child join Dora the Explorer as she explores the dentist’s office. Your child will love learning about getting their teeth cleaned and what to expect during their appointment.
  • “The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist” by Stan Berenstain is a classic story that details a family trip to the dentist’s office. Going over a regular tooth cleaning and cavity check, your child will enjoy learning about the ins and outs of a routine visit, and they may even request to read the book long after their appointment!
  • “The Tooth Book: A Guide to Healthy Teeth and Gums” by Edward Miller is a picture book that shows a child what they can expect at the dentist. It also details why taking care of teeth and exciting facts and history about oral hygiene are essential.

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