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How to Manage Dental Anxiety in Children

How to manage pediatric dental anxiety

Pediatric dental anxiety might be a mouthful to say, but it’s actually a severe problem in the practice. This problem arises when children are anxious about going to the dentist. It’s part of a more significant condition called dental fear and anxiety (DFA). Without proper intervention, this issue can put a strain on your child’s dental appointments and subsequent treatments. Fortunately, you can manage this pediatric dental anxiety.

But first, what causes pediatric dental anxiety? Several factors, it seems. An article by Carter et al. noted that some studies found a negative link between DFA expression and quality of life “with respect to psychological well-being, social functioning, and vitality.” Other studies have also noted how embarrassment or the fear of being blamed may play a role in DFA. Others still indicate that those who exhibit DFA might be predisposed to it due to genetic factors or through conditioning.

What, then, does this play in pediatric dental anxiety? Children have yet to develop the coping mechanisms to deal with stress and pain. They also tend to have a heightened reaction to harmful stimuli. This tendency makes the expression of DFA more pronounced. Carter et al. then note that the most common causes of DFA in children include 1) previous bad experiences in the dental office, 2) a genetically fearful disposition, and 3) a strong reaction to “frustrating demands.” 

6 Ways to Manage Pediatric Dental Anxiety

  1. Find a dentist that understands your child: If a lousy experience is what causes your child’s pediatric dental stress, find a dentist who can ease their fears. As much as possible, look for a pediatric dentist. Pediatric dentists specialize in handling children, the same way pediatricians specialize in caring for children. 
  2. Make the dental office a familiar place. If your child is naturally fearful, lessen their pediatric dental anxiety by familiarizing them with the dental office. Take them to the dentist early. Let them tag along with you to your appointments. It’s hard to feel anxious in a place you already know. The more familiar the dentist’s office is, the less anxious they’ll be.
  3. Share Good Stories about the Dentist. Share good stories about dentists and fun experiences with a dental checkup. You can also describe the nice things inside the dental office such as how the staff are always smiling or how the dentist is like his or her favorite character. Even small details that tickle his or her excitement will be helpful in easing your kid’s dental fear and condition his or her mind to think that the dental clinic is not an entirely new place but has common traits they could relate.
  4. Don’t project your anxiety. Sometimes, we have our hang-ups about the dentist’s chair. And sometimes, we subconsciously pass them on to our kids. As much as possible, steer clear of any disparaging comments. Try to catch yourself when you do delve into this type of language.
  5. Let your kids bring a comfort item: Many pediatric dentists do have toys and other objects for children to hold during their appointments. However, nothing is more comforting than allowing a child to bring their toy or possession from home. Some children may find that bringing a possession allows them to feel calmer.
  6. Offer to be in the room with them during their appointment. Especially for children with separation anxiety, having their parent out of the room during their appointment can cause more extensive anxiety. Thus, being there for your child to comfort them may be necessary to ease your child’s fears during their visit.

 That said, here are some tips for managing dental anxiety in children:

Use distraction strategies to keep the nerves at bay on the appointment day

If your child is nervous the day itself, you might not have enough time to prepare them for the experience ahead. Fortunately, there’s still a slew of things you can do to make the trip less intimidating for your kids.

The first step begins at the dentist’s office. If you’re a dental practitioner, you might want to consider placing toys in the waiting lounge for kids to play with. These toys can also serve as a distraction or a source of comfort for them while they’re at the dental chair. Additionally, knowing how to engage with children is a great skill to have in these situations, regardless if you’ve been pediatrically trained or not. How you talk to a child during the procedure can also significantly lower their stress.

Positive reinforcement can also be beneficial in these cases. Giving your young patients something to look forward to after the procedure can color the experience more pleasant for them. And if all goes well afterward, they can serve as a reminder of the experience, making the next appointment go a lot smoother. 

Prep them before the appointment for a lasting impact

If you still have time before the visit, you can take it as an opportunity to get your child excited about their appointment. We previously talked about the ways you can make your child’s dental visit a success. The technique lies in building anticipation. Once your kids know what to expect, the anxiety that comes with uncertainty disappears. Here’s what you can do in a nutshell:

  • Play-act their dental visits. Play-acting is a powerful educational tool for young children. And it can serve you well when prepping your kids for their appointment. 
  • Use a little media. Because of the ubiquity of pediatric dental anxiety, most children’s media have tackled going to the dentist. If your child has a favorite show, you can check if it also has an episode dedicated to the topic. If not, you can browse through some children’s books that talk about going to the dentist.  
  • Turn it into an adventure. You can also make preparing for the dental visit into a little adventure. Ahead of time, you can plan little steps for your kids to take to get a bit more comfortable with the experience and turn them into small quests to fulfill. The appointment then becomes the final mission, where they put all these skills to the test.
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