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Helping Your Kids Face Their Dental Fears

Here's how to help your child have a better experience in the chair.


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Maybe you’re one of those never-had-a-cavity people who don’t mind a twice yearly visit to the dentist. Or maybe you’re like the rest of us who’ve spent our fair share of time in the chair. No matter your personal history, it’s essential to help your child learn good dental hygiene habits—and that includes twice yearly visits to the dentist, starting as an infant. But what if your kid is freaking out about going? “It’s more common for kids to have anxiety about the dentist if they didn’t start going early on,” says Joe Castellano, DDS, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. “Sometimes it’s a fear of the unknown. But there are ways to help them manage their anxieties so they’ll maintain optimal dental health for life.”

Put on your happy face.

“Kids are perceptive,” says Mario E. Ramos, DMD, a pediatric dentist in Midland Park. “You’re saying everything will be fine, but you may be sending signals that you’re nervous through your tone of voice, mannerisms or facial expressions. Don’t over-prepare them. Instead, approach the visit matter-of-factly, explaining this is just something everyone has to do, like taking a bath or getting a  haircut.”

Avoid negative phrases.

“If you say things like, ‘don’t worry’ or ‘he won’t hurt you,’ all your child hears is ‘worry’ or ‘hurt,’” says Ramos. “You wouldn’t say that kind of thing when you’re taking your child to something fun like the movies, so don’t say it now.” Stick with reassuring comments like, “I’ll be right there with you.”

Don’t focus on what might happen.

You may feel like you should share what the dentist might do, but maybe…not so much. “You know your child better than anyone else,” says Castellano. “If you think prepping them ahead of time is helpful, that’s fine. But don’t make it a big deal.” You can look at the dentist’s website, which often contains office photos, to show them where you’ll be going and who they’ll be seeing, but use your judgment. Some kids get more upset if you keep talking about a visit.

Keep your war stories to yourself.

Dentistry has improved tremendously since we were kids, so it’s best not to shareall the details of your past cavities, root canals or other procedures. “Our tools have improved, and techniques are quicker and a lot easier on kids,” says Castellano. “Besides, your kid will have a tendency to take what you say and blow it up 1,000 times, letting their imaginations run wild.”

Choose a pediatric dentist.

Pediatric dentists receive two to three years of additional schooling in the areas  of child psychology, especially on how to communicate and work with kids. They learn to watch for signs that a child is getting anxious, and they’re taught how to get kids talking so they can ease him or her into a visit. Pediatric offices also tend to be designed with kids in mind and often include a play area, video games and themed rooms to provide a more welcoming, age-specific environment. And when your kid feels relaxed, you’ll likely feel less nervous, says Ramos.

Do a walk-through ahead of time.

If you have a child with special needs or one who’s super anxious, ask the dentist about doing a meet and greet first. “We have some families that come in and take photos of the office, the staff and the chair, and then we make a book that the child reviews again and again,” says Ramos. “This makes the experience familiar to them instead of new and unsettling the first time.”

Pick the right time of day.

Some kids are morning people, some are more cheerful in the afternoon. Don’t try to fight their natural rhythms, especially if they’re already anxious. “Book appointments at the time of day when your child is typically at his or her best,” says Castellano.

Offer distractions.

Ask if your child can bring headsets for music or watch a movie during a visit. Many pediatric dentists already offer these options to redirect a child’s attention during checkups and procedures, says Castellano.

Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.

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