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Dental Anxiety in Children

Many children experience dental anxiety. As parents, we hesitate to put our children in situations that will make them fearful or uncomfortable, which may prevent us from seeking the necessary care for our kids’ healthy oral development. Dental anxiety is a real problem, and if you or your child suffer from it, you know how crippling it can be. Our goal is to explain the source of this fear and offer tools to help your family cope.

What is Dental Anxiety?

Dental anxiety is a state of nervousness, anxiety, or fear produced by the thought of an impending dental appointment. Some also call this condition “dental fear” or “dental phobia.” Odontophobia is literally, “fear of the dentist,” and is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO). They estimate that fifteen to twenty percent of the population suffers from dental phobia or anxiety.

In children, symptoms of dental anxiety can be noticed as young as 5 years old and can range widely in severity. Studies have shown 10% of children and young people have experienced severe dental phobia. A child with a mild fear may feel nervous, emotional, or exhibit some signs of stress upon arriving to a visit with their dentist. While children with a more severe phobia may throw a tantrum or make themselves sick to avoid a dental appointment completely.  

Why are Children Susceptible to Dental Anxiety?

Dental anxiety can affect anyone, but children are particularly susceptible. Most adults with high-anxiety symptoms can trace the origin from a young age, and parents who suffer from dental anxiety are very likely to pass this feeling of unease on to their children.

Bad Experiences in the Past

When a child has a negative experience with one dentist, it can often influence their view of every dentist, assuming all future encounters will be similar. Your child may begin to associate a general cleaning appointment with feelings of discomfort, toothaches, or loud, scary noises, rather than the positive benefits of clean, healthy teeth and gums. If you find your child has had a poor experience after a recent dental visit, it’s important to understand the source of their anxiety and discuss these concerns with their dental team.

Poor Hygiene or Additional Dental Treatment

Young patients who have struggled with proper brushing techniques may feel self-conscious before a dental check-up. The idea of a poor report from the dentist, especially when compared to a sibling, can cause embarrassment or fear of punishment. If a cleaning results in a recommendation for fillings or other major dental treatment, it’s understandable for anyone to feel significant anxiety.  

It’s perfectly normal for kids to miss brushing some teeth. If your child is struggling with oral hygiene, learn how to help them properly brush and floss, here.

Lack of Understanding

Children often fear new experiences, and the sights and sounds of a dental office can be intimidating. Comprehending certain dental treatments can be confusing, even for adults, but as we age it often gets easier to ask questions until we understand the process. Consider this when speaking to your child about an upcoming appointment. Be careful to use language that enforces the importance of healthy, strong teeth and a nice smile. The benefit of taking your child to a pediatric dentist is that our team is specially trained to explain these complex procedures in a way that makes children comfortable.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Dental Anxiety?

Parents whose children suffer from dental anxiety can often miss the subtle warning signs. These manifestations can be different for each individual, but your child is likely to experience one or more of the following:

·       Restlessness or trouble sleeping the night before a dental visit

·       Feeling tearful or sad before, during or after a dental appointment

·       Flushed cheeks or sweating despite a cool room temperature

·       Feeling cranky or easily irritated

·       Fainting or dizziness

·       Consistently feeling sick, in hopes of dental appointments being cancelled at the last minute

Why is it Necessary to Cure or Treat Dental Anxiety?

The biggest problem with dental anxiety is that it often causes people to avoid essential dental care. This can create a vicious cycle as your child grows into an adult. Avoiding the dentist only increases anxiety, and increasing anxiety leads to greater avoidance of necessary care. The longer someone goes without dental care, the worse his or her oral health will become. The worsening state of dental diseases then increases dental fears because of the knowledge that worsening disease requires more extensive treatment, thus heightening dental anxiety even further.

In addition to worsening oral health, avoidance of the dentist makes your child less familiar with the sights, sounds, and other sensations of a dental visit, leading to an ever-worsening fear of the unknown. The longer you are away, the more scary any dental procedure becomes in a young person’s mind, and the more difficult it becomes to return to the dentist again.

We hope it’s encouraging to know that most children with dental anxiety grow out of this fear with age and continued positive experiences.  If you seek to increase your child’s comfort level with the dentist while young, many symptoms of dental anxiety will be resolved by adulthood.Eliminate fear by bringing your child to the dentist early. Use your child’s first visit to get comfortable with your dental team and discuss any worries.

Is There a Cure or Treatment for Dental Anxiety?

The first and most important step in helping your child overcome dental anxiety is to build a trusting relationship with a pediatric dentist. By communicating your child’s fears, your dental team will be able to work with your child to address and manage specific concerns. Here are some suggestions for finding a dental practice that can help.

An Attentive Team
A large part of dental anxiety comes from a fear of not being in control. By inviting your child to understand the various aspects of dental treatment through taking breaks or asking questions during each visit, you and your child can regain some sense of control. Tell your dentist your worries, and they should respond with kindness and a desire to help. Encourage your child to not be shy when asking questions regarding treatment until they understand or trust the procedure. Communication plays a very important role in fighting dental anxiety.

A Pediatric Practice with Modern Technology

If you have not visited a pediatric dental practice in many years, you will be happy to learn that improved technology has made many dental procedures less invasive and more acceptable for young patients! From the initial check-in process, to fluoride treatments and composite fillings, dentistry has modernized, with small mouths in mind. Kid-friendly instruments in a friendly environment make appointments shorter, safer and more enjoyable for children. Ask your dental practice what new procedures they’ve implemented to make treatment for kids more comfortable.

Options for Entertainment or Rewards

Many dentists offer amenities to help anxious children relax, including video games, fun music, or popular movies. These physical distractions or other small toys and candy rewards can offer comfort or be used as tools of positive reinforcement. As long as your child has something to look forward to, the prize itself rarely seems to matter.When additional help is needed, some dentists can also provide mild sedative options for more complex procedures. Laughing gas is an anxiety-reducer that does not have any lingering effects, and can safely be used on children.

Dental Anxiety: Your Next Steps

If dental anxiety has kept you from bringing your child to a dentist in recent years, your next step is finding a dentist you trust. Building trust can take time, but you can expedite that relationship in a few ways. Read online reviews to understand the experience of other parents in your community. Schedule an interview with the dentist so you can assess his or her compassion and communication before they provide treatment, and ask questions about how they handle children or families with dental anxiety. Don’t be afraid to start small.

Download Our Dental Anxiety Infographic