10 tips for parents to extract dental fears

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You say your child is afraid of the dentist?  How can this be? The dentist is BFF with tooth fairy! Which probably means the dentist is bros with Santa Claus, too!  What’s not to like?!

But if your child will not listen to reason, here are 10 tips that will help ease dental fears. These are general guidelines; I have already written on how to address injection fears here and here on this blog.

1. Know that some dental anxiety is normal. Children are typically a bit fearful of new experiences and unfamiliar places. His fear, in other words, does not need to make you afraid.  Stay calm and upbeat. Repeat.

2. Don’t contribute to negative stereotypes of dentists. The first memory I have of anything dentist-related is my matter-of-fact, Midwestern mother telling me that “dentists have the highest rate of suicide of any profession” (they don’t) because “everybody hates them” (not true!)  Your children look to you as a model for how they should think and feel. Watch what you say about dentists – the message shouldn’t be negative.

3. Dentist = Awesome. Highlight the positives of your own dental triumphs: I did something good for my health; my dentist is really nice; my mouth feels so clean; I really like going there! (Note: I don’t care if you don’t actually feel this way. Do not push your own issues onto your children).

4. Practice first. Play “Dentist.” Watch fun YouTube videos featuring children at the dentist or read some books on the topic.  Then role-play, with parent acting as “patient” first. Lay back in a recliner; let your child poke around in your mouth. Switch roles.  This activity should be lighthearted and fun. Get your child comfortable with exposing her neck, opening her mouth, and having people touch her teeth and gums.

5. Set clear behavioral expectations beforehand. Examples: “You will follow all the dentist’s directions the first time.” “You will sit in the chair until the dentist says it is okay to get up.”

6. Plan a reward together in advance. Rewards motivate. Your child earns it by following the rules. This should ideally be some fun activity (not expensive) you can do immediately after the appointment. That way, your child has something to look forward to.

7. Don’t over-reassure your child. “It’s going to be alright; don’t worry, the people here are nice, everything will be fine” is translated immediately to “Why is my mother reassuring me so much?! It must be really bad!” If it comes time for you to leave your child with the dentist, do so briskly and without fuss – this will communicate that you know your child can handle it.

8. Be careful where your attention goes. Don’t pay much attention to your child’s protests or tears, but pay a lot to brave behaviors. “I love the way you are sitting still in the chair!” “Great job following directions!” “You are being so cooperative!” are all things to have on auto-repeat.

9. No avoidance; no escape. Do whatever you can to keep a distressed child from escaping the appointment without finishing. She’ll leave demoralized and also likely to link future trips to the dentist with how she was feeling at the height of her anxiety this time.

10. If your child’s dental anxiety is severe or preventing dental treatment, a visit to a mental health provider is warranted. This should be someone who can provide cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the evidence-based treatment for anxiety for children and adults.  The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies maintains a therapist listing at
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