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10 Tips for Helping Kids Overcome a Fear of the Dentist

By June 19, 2024June 23rd, 2024Kids Dentistry

10 Tips for Helping Kids Overcome a Fear of the DentistWe’ve had a lot of parents visit Kids Mile High Pediatric Dentistry concerned that their two-year-old or three-year-old is scared of the dentist (though dental anxiety in children can happen with any age group). It’s definitely a normal reaction considering a stranger is attempting to look around in their mouth with various instruments. Even adults can be a little freaked out by the prospect! Yet, knowing this doesn’t mean that if a child won’t open their mouth at the dentist or they refuse to even sit in the chair, parents won’t be a bit stressed out. The good news is that taking certain steps can go a long way in alleviating dental phobia in kids. When little ones are comfortable with regular visits and have warm and fuzzy feelings towards their dentist, it sets the stage for a lifetime of good oral health because as grown-ups, they’ll be more likely to schedule checkups and address any issues right away. Here are 10 ideas for turning your child into a brave little patient to make your life easier and ensure they develop a positive outlook on dental care.

1. Start Visiting Young: The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends scheduling your child’s first visit to the dentist no later than his or her first birthday. This isn’t just a great way to ward off future dental problems and get some feedback on habits like thumb sucking and pacifier use, it also enables your little one to develop a relationship with their pediatric dentist. By the time they’re in their toddler years, they’ll be an old hand at hopping up in the dentist’s chair and having their mouth examined. It helps them build trust with the doctor and, of course, learn about all of the cool prizes. Additionally, we can slowly introduce stimuli like metal instruments over time to reduce their fear level.

2. Go to a Fun Pediatric Dentist: Sure, your children can visit the family dentist who caters to all ages but a pediatric dentist is specially trained in caring for a child’s developing teeth. Dr. Paddy uses behavioral techniques including tell-show-do, distraction, positive reinforcement and speaking in kid-friendly terms to help alleviate the jitters and make seeing the dentist an enjoyable experience. At Kids Mile High, our Englewood pediatric dental office is designed with children and teens in mind. It’s bright, cheerful and full of fun stuff like a huge fish tank, a putting green and a stash of prizes. When the dentist’s office is lighthearted and exciting, exams and treatments don’t seem like as big of a deal.

3. Do Some Reading: There are a ton of great children’s books about going to the dentist. This approach is a win-win because you can reap the benefits of reading to your kiddo while also easing them into the idea of dental visits through the shenanigans of some beloved characters. A few great options are Just Going to the Dentist (featuring the always awesome Little Critter), The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist, Curious George Visits the Dentist and Elmo Visits the Dentist. While there’s certainly a theme in the titles, all of the books are fun and informative. Videos and shows about the dentist also work well. A simple search on YouTube will yield a bunch of helpful choices.

4. Play Pretend: A lot of children’s fears of the dentist are based on the unknown. Going to the dentist for the first time will seem a lot less scary if they’ve gone through the motions before in an environment they’re comfortable in. Break out their toothbrush and pretend to be the dentist while they’re the patient. Have them sit back in a chair or the couch and count and brush their teeth. Then, switch roles and let them play dentist, either on you or their favorite stuffed animals.

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5. Get into Role Model Mode: Studies have shown that parents, particularly fathers, pass on their own fear of the dentist to their children. Yet, positive emotions are contagious too so it’s extremely important that parents talk about the dentist in a happy, upbeat way and avoid mentioning or displaying any apprehension about dental work in front of their kids. When you walk into the dentist’s office with your child, smile and try your best to appear relaxed.

6. Talk About it Within Reason: As we mentioned before, the unknown plays a big part in making kids scared of a dental visit. Chat with them about the importance of oral care, what’s going to happen and what to expect. If they’re surprised by things that seem unpleasant, they might lose some trust in the process. This is especially true when it comes to getting cavities filled or having other procedures done. However, don’t throw out negative, frightening words like “shot” or “pain.” Either ask your pediatric dentist what terms they use and what they think would be appropriate or just let them describe the parts of the procedure that will elicit the most anxiety. For example, we say things like “sleepy juice” and “sugar bugs,” which tend to sound a little more fun and less threatening.

7. Give Your Child a Sense of Control: Research indicates that another source of dental phobia in children is a fear of a loss of control. Letting children have a perceived sense of control can be helpful. For example, we may allow your child to choose which tooth will be polished first or the flavor of the fluoride treatment they prefer. Another way to give patients a feeling of control and predictability is the tell-show-do technique, which we practice at Kids Mile High. We tell them exactly what we’re going to do and show them the equipment before we get to work.

8. Opt to go as Painless as Possible: This one may seem obvious but if your son or daughter is scared of the dentist, a fear of pain is probably one of the reasons why. Do your research before choosing a pediatric dentist to find out what types of treatments they offer. Dr. Paddy loves technology and invests in anything that will make appointments more efficient and comfortable. We use WaterLase MD and WaterLase iPlus lasers to perform a bunch of dental procedures, including filling cavities, without using the drill or needing to give shots. Laser dentistry is virtually painless and extremely accurate. We also use Isolite instead of those uncomfortable, awkward rubber dental dams in order to isolate the treatment area and keep it dry.

9. Use Positive Reinforcement: Praise your child for making it through their dental exam or treatment and tell them how proud of them you are. A few stickers or letting them choose a movie to watch that night as a reward can’t hurt either. Pediatric dentists are used to kids being afraid and even temper tantrums so don’t scold your child or get angry if they act out. This will just make them equate the negativity with the dentist. Instead, talk about why they behaved how they did and go over ways you can avoid it in the future.

10. Ask For Help: If all else fails and your child still exhibits a major fear of the dentist, don’t be afraid to seek help. Ask your dentist about the options for making treatment easier, such as sedation or protective stabilization. Dr. Paddy has been trained in sedation and we offer nitrous oxide, oral conscious sedation, and in-office general anesthesia. If the fear is more generalized and they exhibit it in other areas of their life, therapy with a child psychologist could also be beneficial.

If your son or daughter is scared of the dentist, try all of these tips or any combination of them until you find the ones that work best for your child’s individual needs. When going to the dentist is an engaging, positive experience, it helps to prevent avoidance and anxiety as an adult as well. Dr. Paddy is an Englewood, CO pediatric dentist with the training and expertise to handle dental anxiety in children. We’re all about making visits to the dentist awesome (yes, it’s possible!) so kids actually look forward to it, which takes stress off of parents and ensures little smiles are healthy and happy. Schedule your child’s appointment today!

Dr. Paddy

Author Dr. Paddy

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • I really like your idea to play pretend before you take your kid to the dentist, so they are familiar with the processes before they go in. That way, it won’t seem so scary when they are in the office. I am going to take my son to the dentist soon, and I want to make sure he isn’t scared and he is comfortable. I will keep these tips in mind, thanks for sharing.

  • Derek Dewitt says:

    My wife and I have a hard time getting our son to go to the dentist, so thanks for the tips. I like your point about choosing the least-painful treatments possible. We’ll have to ask about sedation and methods that are painless so he doesn’t develop more anxiety over it.

  • My sister has three young kids between the ages of 2 and 8, all of whom are afraid of the dentist. She’s set an appointment for them all to go later this month, and wants to do something to ease their anxieties. This article has some great, simple ideas to help kids not be afraid, especially to find a fun pediatric dentist, who will be lighthearted, and speak in a way that kids will be comfortable with.

  • Derek Dewitt says:

    My kid is really afraid of the dentist still, so thanks for sharing this. I like your point about giving your child a sense of control. I’ll be sure to ask if he can choose which teeth to get cleaned first so he feels in control.