Conquering Fears of the Dentist

young girl at dentist

Help make visits to the dentist a breeze for your kids with these expert tips.

Dr. Azi Ardakani knows that fear of the dentist can become a significant challenge for children and their families.

“I have a now 9-year-old girl that two years ago wouldn’t even sit in our dental chair,” said Ardakani, who owns Little Heroes of Orange County Pediatric Dentistry in Laguna Hills. “From the start, she had the fear in her eyes.”

Ardakani learned from the girl’s mom that she’d had a very bad experience with a non-pediatric dentist.

“I made sure we talked about other things besides dentistry — about her school, her glittery clothes — and told her about who I am and what I do. And that the first session we will just look at her teeth [while] standing, using a mirror,” said Ardakani. “And basically that’s what I did.”

She returned for a cleaning, which was also performed while standing.

“She got her gift and toothbrush that day and told Mom, she likes this dentist,” said Ardakani. “We scheduled her third visit a month from that, where we were able to show her all the instruments and she agreed to sit and talk to us.”

They were able to perform a thorough cleaning on that visit and six months later, they were even able to take X-rays of her teeth.

“By year mark, we were buddies,” she said. “She even drew me a picture of her and me holding hands. It was truly rewarding for me. We were even able to do two fillings and an extraction on her using oral sedation. I made sure whatever I do, I explain it in children’s terminology to her so nothing is surprising.”

Ardakani said that it can take a while for a child to gain trust in a dentist and the best thing parents can do is to take their kids to a pediatric dental specialist who knows how to help them feel safe.

“Once they lose trust in a health care provider, it takes so long to regain that with another person and it may even affect their perspective on health care for life,” she said.

She said a good pediatric dentist knows how to talk to kids and make them feel comfortable. She recommends preparing kids for a visit by reading to them about a character’s visit to the dentist, including how the dentist will be kind and make their teeth clean and sparkly.

“Do role-play with small toy mirrors so your child knows the instrument the dentist will be using,” she said. “Do not transfer your own fears, or use words such as ‘pain’ or ‘shots’ to scare your child or relate unpleasantness to dentistry.”

According to San Juan Capistrano-based family therapist Erica Curtis (therapywitherica.com), fear of the dentist may range anywhere between 36 percent to 61 percent of the population based on various studies.

“Fears of the dentist are not age-specific,” she said. “While parents typically see more fears in general during preschool years — such as fears of the dark, separation from caregivers or monsters — teens and adults fear the dentist, too.”

She said these fears can develop for a number of reasons, including an upsetting, traumatic or painful experience; discomfort with sounds, smells and other sensations experienced at the dentist; anxiety that the visit will be painful or involve needles; not knowing what to expect; unfavorable stories about the dentist from family members, friends or the media; and parents’ own anxiety or dislike of going to the dentist.

But there are some ways to help prevent these fears from developing in the first place.

“Find a pediatric dentist who is versed in child-friendly strategies that emphasize comfort and predictability — such as showing and telling a child what to expect using age-appropriate language,” she said. “If your child needs more extensive work done, consider breaking up the visit into two visits so that their first visit is as comfortable and straight-forward as possible.”

She said drawing pictures or reading stories about dental hygiene can also help. But if your child is not worried about the dentist, avoid stories about children with dental fears.

“Play dentist,” she said. “Allow your child to take the lead. Ask if (s)he would like to be the dentist or the patient.”

Also, consider simple changes in the language you use, including, “We get to visit your dentist this week.” Instead of, “You have to go to the dentist this week.”

“Avoid fear-based parenting strategies to get your children to brush their teeth such as, ‘If you don’t brush, the dentist will have to give you a shot and drill your teeth!’” she said.

What if a fear of the dentist is already ingrained in your child?

Curtis said it’s helpful to first determine what your child is afraid of.

“Ask your child to draw a picture of going to the dentist,” she said. “Ask open-ended questions to learn more about the worries, (e.g.) ‘Tell me about your drawing,’” she said. “Alternatively, invite your child to select an emoji that doesn’t want to go to the dentist. Ask, ‘Can this guy tell us what happens at the dentist?’”

You can also use external aids to address specific concerns — including headphones for disconcerting sounds, essential oil dabbed under the nose for dentist office smells, and fun sunglasses for things they see that can cause anxiety.

“Get your child involved in problem-solving,” she said.

It’s also important to work with your dentist to develop a plan for getting your child used to the experience.

“This could include dropping by only to deliver a child-made drawing or having the dentist come out to the waiting room just to count teeth,” she said. “Gradually work your way up to your child going into the back area.”

If your child’s fears are grounded in an actual upsetting event, you can help your child tell the story while focusing on positive outcomes, helpers and resolutions.

“‘And Mommy was with you the whole time,’” she said. “‘And then the friendly helper showed you where the treasure chest was.’ Consider using simple stick drawings, toys or puppets to retell the event.”

You can also use favorite characters, movies or story themes to turn fears into something more relatable or silly.

“A dentist wearing a medical mask might be Darth Vader,” Curtis said. “The buzzing sound from an electric toothbrush might be a friendly bee trying to get pollen from each tooth: ‘Silly bee. She thinks your teeth are flowers!’”

But if your child’s fears are so severe that he or she is unable to go to the dentist, Curtis said to consider seeking help from a therapist who is trained in treating childhood fears.

“Dentist fears can develop at any age and can persist into adulthood,” Curtis said.

By Jessica Peralta