Helping Kids Slay Their Fear of the Dentist

Dental anxiety is real, studies show. But those twice-annual visits don't have to be so scary. A local dentist offers tips to help kids conquer that dental 'dragon.'

Metal instruments, bright lights and grinding noises: The dentist’s office can be an intimidating place for kids – and even some adults.

For most, it’s a fear of the unknown, says Dr. Douglas Kardynal, a dentist in Sterling Heights. What’s that scary sound? Why do those tools look so sharp? Kids might have all sorts of anxiety-inducing thoughts.

And while that fear is very real, it can decrease with age and experience, notes a 2016 study on dental anxiety in kids ages 10-14. Parents, however, sometimes have a negative impact.

“A lot of parents may have had a bad experience when they were kids,” Kardynal says, and they pass that fear right along to their little ones.

But set your own jitters aside, he says, and start your child’s dental visits early.

“The main thing is trying to get them in early before problems develop,” Kardynal says. If you begin routine cleanings around age 3, he says, visits should be comfortable for patient and doc. However, if fear has postponed that first visit, problems could arise that make things less than pleasant (cue the drilling).

So how do you soothe your child’s worries and set her up with healthy oral habits? In honor of National Children’s Dental Health Month, Kardynal offers suggestions to help kids feel fearless about dental visits.

The fear is real

It’s real – and it’s a big problem, according to that 2016 study, which was published in the Journal of Dental Anesthesia and Pain Medicine.

“Dental phobia in pediatric patients has been identified as a source of significant health problems,” it reports. “Moreover, it may persist into adolescence and lead to an avoidance of dental care or disruptive behavior during treatment.”

The top three dental fears for children, according to this study, are injections, drills and the “feeling of choking.” These fears create a vicious cycle. The longer kids wait for care, the more care they could need.

And that care could extend beyond teeth and gums.

“That’s your first barrier for overall health,” Kardynal says. “If the gums are bleeding, inflamed, swollen – all that inflammation is going into your body,” and it can cause heart disease, diabetes and more.

That’s why, the study adds, it’s important to identify dental fear in kids early on.

Ease the anxiety

Before your child has her first dental appointment, bring her along to yours, Kardynal suggests. She can watch while you’re getting your teeth cleaned. She can even get a “roller coaster” ride in the dentist’s chair, he says. “It’s all just (a way to get) them kind of used to it.”

Before your child’s appointment, stop by the library to borrow a picture book like The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist or Dora the Explorer-themed Show Me Your Smile: A Visit to the Dentist. Kids can relate to their favorite characters, Kardynal says, and “you’re educating them in a way they can understand.”

When talking to your child about their upcoming visit, avoid statements like, “It won’t hurt,” “Don’t be afraid,” and “I hated going to the dentist as a kid.”

“We often hear parents say this to their children,” Kardynal says, and all they’re doing is passing along their own dental fears. Instead, remain positive and say things like, “It’s going to be great.”

On the day of the visit, be patient.

“Don’t get discouraged if your child doesn’t sit in a chair on the first or second visit,” he says. Don’t punish them for not sitting in the chair, either. “If they can’t do it, they can’t.”

Kardynal says at his office – whose playful slogan is “We Cater to Cowards” – the method is to tell, show and do. Doctors tell the child what they’re going to do, what sensations she’s going to feel and how instruments are used. Then, they do it.

To help kids relax, there’s a TV on the ceiling. Kardynal says he turns on the Disney Channel to curb anxiety. Kids are welcome to listen to headphones, too – anything to keep calm. Plus, mom and dad are welcome in the room.

Once you’re home, be sure to establish a dental health routine. Let kids pick out their toothpaste at the store and purchase a timer for them to keep track of how long they’ve been brushing their teeth.

“Make dental hygiene a normal part of the day,” Kardynal says.

Art by Jay Holladay


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