Family, Kids & Relationships

9 Ways to help your child overcome a fear of the dentist

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A lot of kids are nervous or flat-out terrified of going to the dentist — and that can make a necessary dental appointment, and even the weeks or days leading up to it, an ordeal for families. Some kids may even have an uncontrollable meltdown in the dentist’s chair, making it impossible for the dentist to complete their work. How can parents help their child be more relaxed and prepared?

First, it’s important to understand the many valid reasons kids might be fearful or anxious about a trip to the dentist. The most obvious reason is because dental procedures, routine cleanings, and even examinations can often be uncomfortable or painful. But there’s also the sense of powerlessness that comes from having someone work inside your mouth — the patient can’t communicate or move freely, and may be worried that they can’t breathe normally. 

Kids are also likely to be afraid because they’ve picked up on their parents’ fear of the dentist, or they’ve heard unpleasant stories from others about dental procedures. Maybe they’re intimidated by all the unfamiliar equipment and people that will be literally in their face at the dentist’s office. Another common reason is that kids simply don’t know enough about what the dental visit is going to be like or feel like, and that uncertainty is a trigger for anxiety.

But we all know we need to help kids keep their teeth and mouths healthy now and for the long term — and sometimes those dental appointments are not easy to schedule and reschedule. So here are some actionable tips for parents to help calm kids’ fears and guide them a little more smoothly through this unpleasant-but-necessary aspect of life.

  • Introduce it in a fun and positive way: Use child-friendly phrases like, “The dentist is going to count your teeth and see how shiny your smile is.” Tell them the dentist or hygienist is on a top-secret mission to find “sugar bugs” (areas of plaque that can cause cavities) and clean them off your teeth. A pediatric dentist’s office should be able to provide kid-friendly explanations for any procedure, so just ask.
  • Highlight the benefits: Emphasize that you’re going there to help your teeth stay clean, healthy, and strong. If there’s a procedure involved, highlight how the procedure will help in the short term and long term.
  • Do kid-friendly research together: Check out children’s books about going to the dentist and about the job of a dentist, and see if your kids’ favorite shows have helpful episodes about visiting the dentist. Then encourage them to ask questions.
  • Join forces with your dental team: Call to get more details from the dentist’s office about the upcoming appointment. Will there be X-rays or anesthetic? Will a parent be allowed in the room? What kinds of food and drink can they have afterward? And how should you prepare your child? Pediatric dentists typically have a lot of experience in managing kids’ expectations and emotions, so take their lead.
  • Give kids a special job: Having a role can help kids gain a sense of control over an intimidating situation. For example, have them press the button in the elevator for the correct floor, count how many tiles are on the ceiling, or figure out how the chair-side sink works so they can explain it to you later.
  • Discuss distraction strategies: For kids who really don’t want to see anything that’s happening with the dentist’s tools, come up with things they can do instead. For example, squishing a stress ball as hard as they can, doing a breathing exercise, or closing their eyes and remembering the names of all the kids in their grade. Find out if music or videos are allowed in the room.
  • Bring something comforting: Ask what kinds of toys or comforting objects are allowed in the dentist’s chair to help soothe your child. Can you bring a fidget, a lovey, or even a doll who could pretend to get their teeth examined first? Is jewelry permitted?
  • Scope out the office: Look at the dentist’s website together and show your child a picture of the dentist and the staff. Drive or walk by the office so they can see exactly where it is.
  • Make a plan to do something fun or relaxing afterward: It could be a trip to the smoothie shop around the corner (if food and drink is not an issue), a movie to watch while they recover from the procedure, or a scheduled video call with a loved one from a nice sunny bench near the office.

Bringing kids to the dentist isn’t always easy, but with your love, support, and preparation — not to mention regular visits! — they can eventually develop a healthy relationship with the dentist’s office. And this can help prevent further dental problems, or dental phobias, down the road.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.