Does your child refuse to open her mouth or throw tantrums at the dentist’s office? Or, does she cower at the mention of the dentist’s name? Going to the dentist can be a stressful event for both parent and child, especially when your little one suffers from dental anxiety. But if you think fear of the dentist is something your child will outgrow, think again—dental anxiety isn’t always left behind in childhood along with midday naps and bedtime stories. In fact, dental anxiety affects 10 to 20 percent of adults in the U.S. Given that childhood is considered the “core risk phase” for the development of anxiety disorders, it appears that dental fears and phobias are no exception.1
Why are Kids Afraid of the Dentist?
It’s easy to dismiss the fear of the dentist as something that all children experience. However, the condition doesn’t affect every child. Research shows that the tears and screams in the dentist’s waiting room really only come from nine percent of the population.2
So why are some children more anxious than others before a visit to the dentist? Research says that age and gender can have something to do with it. Dental anxiety was found to be more common in younger children, as well as among girls—not surprising given that females with any anxiety disorder outnumber males 2:1. Personality can play a role as well; fear of the dentist is closer associated with shy, inhibited characteristics.3
Dental anxiety in children can also result from bad experiences.4 Researchers from the U.K. found that the way dental staff members treat and interact with your child can be a key influence on the amount of anxiety your child experiences during an appointment.5 Punishment, restraining, and yelling by dental staff members is a surefire way to cause tantrums and fits during a regular cleaning. On the contrary, friendly receptionists and encouraging dentists, however, were found to reduce anxiety and increase cooperation in child patients.
Tips for Making Friends with the Dentist
Whether your child is screaming bloody murder at the receptionist or just seems a little shaky sliding into that dental chair, a stress-free dentist appointment is an experience most parents would like to achieve. As an anxiety specialist, I’ve collected a few tips that my patients and I have used successfully to take the dread out of going to the dentist.
- Find a dental practice with a friendly staff and a gentle dentist: It doesn’t have to be a specialty pediatric practice – dental staff with warmth and a good sense of humor can be found anywhere. Dental offices that restrain, criticize, or belittle your child should be avoided.
- Model positive attitudes towards dentistry: If you complain and whine before and after your own appointments, what message does that send your child? On the other hand, treating your own visits to the dentist like they are a party – with the dentist as your bestie – sends a very different message.
- Warm them up to the idea: Any new experience can set off the jitters. Ditto unfamiliar environments. If your child tends towards the anxious, a gradual familiarization to the wonderworld of dentistry in advance of her own appointments is a great idea. Taking your child to observe your own cleanings means she has the opportunity to see for herself what dentists’ offices look like and what actually happens inside of them. Remember: you are modeling calm, happy behavior.
- Use visuals and incorporate play: Watching internet videos of (enthusiastic) children at the dentist and then engaging your child in pretend play about going to the dentist will also normalize the experience in advance of the first appointment.
- Motivate and reward: Setting up a reward in advance can help motivate your child to display brave, cooperative behaviors at the dentist. This should ideally be a positive experience that can directly follow the appointment and it should be awarded for specific behaviors – staying seated in the chair, following dentist’s directions – rather than “not being anxious.”
- Keep calm: Finally, if your child does become overly anxious, remain calm. Just because she is scared doesn’t mean you have to be. Stay upbeat. Tolerate your child’s distress. Warmly insist she experience a success before she gets to leave, even if that success is a small one.
These tips should go a long way in helping your child see the dentist as less of an enemy and more of a friend. However, sometimes high-kicks and screams at the dentist chair can call for more significant intervention. If your child is so distressed at the dentist that she is missing out on needed care – or you are letting her avoid or escape it – visiting a therapist experienced in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) will probably be helpful for both of you.
1. Beesdo, K., Knappe, S., & Pine, D. (2009). Anxiety and anxiety disorders in children and adolescents: Developmental issues and implications for DSM-V. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 32, 483-524.
2. Klingberg, G., & Broberg, A. (2007). Dental fear/anxiety and dental behavior management problems in children and adolescents: A review of prevalence and concomitant psychological factors. International Journal of Paediatric Dentistry, 17, 391-406.
4. Townend, E., Dimigen, G., & Fung, D. (2000). A clinical study of child dental anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38, 31-46.
5. Zhou, Y., Cameron, E., Forbes, G., & Humphris, G. (2011). Systematic review of the effect of dental staff behaviour on child dental patient anxiety and behaviour. Patient Education and Counseling, 85, 4-13.
Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for children, adolescents, and young adults. She focuses on anxiety disorders, including selective mutism, social anxiety disorder, and OCD, among others. Dr. Dahlsgaard is an accomplished lecturer, published author on child development and mental health, and holds prominent positions at the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic and the Picky Eaters Clinic in The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.