Dental anxiety refers to the strong negative feelings associated with dental treatment and the feeling that something unpleasant is about to happen. It can manifest as behaviour where anxious people can act differently when at the dentist.
Anxiety can relate to personal experiences, family concerns, disease levels and general personality traits. The parents of children with dental fear or anxiety may avoid or delay dental treatment at all costs which can result in a decline in their oral health.
They may have poor cooperation during dental visits which can affect treatment outcomes. Delays can end up meaning the child needs advanced behaviour guidance like a general anaesthetic or other sedation to do the treatment.
Fear during childhood can continue into adulthood. It can be a significant predictor of people avoiding the dentist once in adulthood. Dental anxiety in children is frequently related to a personality type or developmental stage rather than an event, though a traumatic event or an event they perceive to be traumatic can trigger the anxiety. That’s why first dental visits for a toothache requiring emergency treatment can be traumatizing, causing the child to become dentally anxious.
It’s the reason dentists always recommend bringing children for a visit once their first tooth appears or by the age of one, so they get used to the experience, the sight of the dentist, the smells and the sounds. For those first trips parents are encouraged to put the baby/toddler on their laps and cuddle them during the visit.
Dentists are trained to deliver an age-appropriate introduction to this new setting, and will modify the experience for the developmental stage of the visiting child. Dentally anxious parents can have children who exhibit negative behaviours at the dentist. When figuring out the reason around a child’s fear of the dentist, you may need to look beyond the child itself as other family members such as older siblings, or other situations, may add to the child’s anxiety.
Forms of anxiety management can vary from behaviour techniques to a general anaesthetic in a hospital operating theatre. Evidence from the UK shows Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can also have positive results for allaying dental anxiety in some kids.
If behaviour methods are not successful, other methods of anxiety control such as oral or nitrous oxide sedation or general anaesthetic may be required.
How parents can help children that are anxious Parents can talk with their child about the dentist at home, and role play can be a great way to understand what the dentist does. This includes seeing the parents regularly go to the dentist and be positive about dental visits as well as watching older siblings at the dental practice.
Play therapy can be helpful for some. Parents who believe their child has worries about an upcoming visit should let the clinic know in advance.
Listen and talk to the child about their concerns about dental care. Parents are encouraged not to show fear or use words that indicate there is something to be fearful of. For example, the word ‘brave’ – children don’t need to be told to be brave as that indicates that there is
something to be afraid of.
Bringing a favourite toy can help some kids as it is comforting and acts as a distraction. For older children such as teenagers, being able to listen to some favourite music on their device is often helpful. In some cases children’s dental anxiety can be prolonged, though many children do outgrow it once they have more understanding of the processes and outcomes. Again it very much depends on the child and their developmental stage but parents can play a significant role in reducing the anxiety.
Dental Health Week 2-8 August
Parents can get information, tools, podcast info and
other oral health pro tips at: https://www.ada.org.au/Dental-Health-Week/Home