Open wide, this won’t hurt a bit!
Prosecco isn’t doubling in price tomorrow.
Now then, what image currently occupies your head? Is it one of a world in which the price of Prosecco doesn’t change? Or it the far more horrific vision supermarket shelves devoid of bubbly?
Our bet is on the latter.
You see, the subconscious doesn’t concern itself with negatives. If you give it a disturbing concept it really doesn’t matter where you put the word ‘doesn’t’ or ‘not’ or ‘won’t’, the subconscious – our protector – tends to filter out the extraneous information and instead concentrates on the threat.
In this case, a future unlubricated by fizz.
For children, this filter is magnified, which goes some way to explaining why around 20% of them tend to develop an irrational fear of the dentist.
If you think about it, there’s no natural, genetically-triggered reason for a child to be wary of the dentist’s chair. They would certainly be cautious in a new environment, as all children tend to be. But an outright phobia? That’s not a natural response to negligible threat.
Why is your child scared of the dentist?
So why does your son or daughter get scared of the dentist? The answer, I’m afraid, is that it’s all down to us – the parents who work so hard to try to make our children calm when the time comes to sit in that chair.
We say things like There’s nothing to be afraid of, and No-one’s going to hurt you. By contrast, we don’t treat other non-threatening situations in the same way. We never suggest that eating a meal or playing on the swings or running in the garden is going to end in pain, but by creating a sense of potential threat (usually in projecting our own discomfort, it has to be said) the child’s subconscious response is Why is someone talking about hurting me?!
And as a result, the subconscious perceives threat where none exists and creates the only suitable response – a state of heightened alertness and an anxiety-fuelled fight or flight reaction that manifests as tears or reluctance and, left unchecked, has the potential to evolve into behaviour that’s downright phobic.
Dental phobia can have a seriously detrimental impact on a child’s oral health if it prevents them from receiving much needed treatment, making life exponentially more difficult for both parents and dentists alike.
What can parents do to help their child overcome this fear?
If your child already has a dental phobia, then the best approach is to communicate that to the dentist, explaining that they may need just that extra little bit of TLC.
Time appointments for occasions when you don’t need to rush to or from the clinic, unnecessarily elevating stress levels. Avoid nap times or times when you might be on a tight schedule to get somewhere else.
Whether your child already has an issue with nerves or not, try to use positive reinforcement leading up to the visit, telling your child they’re going to see a nice man or lady who’s going to look at their teeth to make sure they’re growing nice and strong. Children need predictability – they like to know what is happening and when, so that they can adjust to the new situation.
Show the child what the dentist will do. Explain there’s a big chair that’s really comfortable and it’s great because it can go up and down and tilts backwards and forwards. You can even go as far as doing some practice or role play by asking your child to open their mouth as wide as possible. Get them to imagine their mouth is like a big cave!
Play the part of the dentist, looking in your son or daughter’s mouth and explaining that the dentist may have a funny little instrument or “silver stick” that’s like a magic wand and he may tap the their tooth with it. You can say they might hear some funny noises and that these are just some of the equipment the dentist uses to make the child’s teeth nice and strong and healthy. If you have one, use a little tooth pick or similar and just tap the child’s tooth so he knows what to expect.
Talk about the dentist’s ‘helper’ – the dental nurse – who’ll be in the room at the same time and how they will pass all the different things the dentist needs.
Make sure you have your child’s favourite cuddly toy or comforter with you and try to avoid using words like drill or nurse, as they can have worrying connotations for a small child.
If your child should start to have a meltdown when you arrive at the dental surgery, just stay calm and speak gently, perhaps telling them their favourite story whilst you wait for the appointment or perhaps play a little game to keep their mind occupied.
Once the child has met the dentist and they have formed a good relationship you’ll find that things go much more smoothly. First visits can be worrying for a young child, but with the parent and the dentist working together to make the session as easy as possible – it’s just child’s play!
By Elaine Hodgins, Children’s specialist at Zoe Clews & Associates, and Zoe Clews, founder of Zoe Clews & Associates.
If your child is struggling with a phobia relating to the dentist or anything else, Elaine is on hand to help. Find out more about our hypnotherapy for children.