The dentist does not have to be a scary place, but so many children and adults are scared because of bad experiences, feeling lied to about the process and, of course, the unknown. Honesty is the best policy although many parents don't know how to explain dental procedures and very few practices have child life specialists or other developmental specialists to ease the experience. Without these resources or the knowledge to support a child, it can be difficult, but it does not have to be impossible. Here are 5 tips to ease the anxiety of a school-aged child going to the dentist....
1. Take some sort of music player and headphones
Listening to music can be a great distraction and can eliminate some of the other sounds during the appointment. This is also a great way to discourage the practioner from talking to a person who does not find it easy or pleasant to talk while having a mouth full of hands, a little mirror, spit sucker, teeth picker and floss.
2. Teach nose breathing
Deep breathing can reduce stress and calm nerves, however it is extremely difficult to use deep breathing while at the dentist. A great alternative is to focus on breathing through the nose, slowly. This can also be a great distraction as the attention shifts from mouth to nose. Practicing in the car or waiting room before the appointment will make a huge difference.
3. Ask to hear the sounds before each tool is used
Dental equipment makes weird noises. It is vital that each tool is explained before being put into the patients mouth. Parents can be great advocates by asking and reminding the practitioner to explain each piece of equipment and allow the child to hear how it sounds.
4. Choose a safety sign
By choosing a safety sign before the appointment the child can have some control in the experience and have a plan if the appointment becomes too stressful, scary or overwhelming. This sign could be lifting the left hand, pointing at a parent, or raising a leg. This sign signifies the need for a break and should be used to prevent biting, hitting or kicking the practitioner. In order for this to work, everyone in the room must know what the safety sign is.
5. Make time-out cards
For the extremely anxious child, creating time-out cards can give a sense of control and a more productive visit. The child must know that the entire exam must be completed, but have the opportunity to take 3-5 breaks if needed. Make cards that say 15, 30, and 60 seconds. These cards are held by the child and can be turned in when a break is needed. When the cards are used up, there may be no more breaks.
Regardless of the amount of anxiety or success of distraction, remember to always be honest. It's not easy, but it will build a relationship of trust between you and your child AND leave less to the imagination which can often be worse than reality.
For anxious preschoolers, parents can hold them in the chair to encourage a sense of safety and security. It can also be extremely helpful to show the equipment and hear the sounds before using each tool. There should be no surprises!