Afraid of the Dentist? 6 Tips for Parents of Children with Anxiety or Sensory Sensitivities

Young boy getting teeth cleaned

The dentist can be a scary place for many children, but the plethora of loud tools make the dentist especially intimidating for children with sensory sensitivities or anxiety.

For any child, the world is filled with a plethora of possible sensory challenges, ranging from lights to sounds, textures, smells, and tastes. The dental office is no exception, especially for kids with dental anxiety or those who are on the autism spectrum.

So, how do you help your child to cope with all of the stimuli he will face during his upcoming dental appointment? After all, just because a fear of the dentist is not uncommon doesn’t mean you want your child to possess this fear.

Here are six ways you can help your child to not just survive his next dental appointment but thrive during it.

  1. Call Ahead
    Before you take your child to the dentist, it’s a good idea to call ahead to discuss his needs with the dental staff there. The more information you have about the office’s practices, the more comfortable both you and your child will be. Also, schedule your child’s dental appointment at the particular time of day—morning or afternoon—that typically works best for him.
  2. Schedule Some “Happy Visits”
    Before you take your child to his actual dental appointment, why not take him on a few “fun” trips to the dentist, known as “happy visits”? These visits will enable your child to check out the dental office environment, get a feel for the patient chair, and even allow the dental hygienist to count his teeth. The purpose of these visits is to desensitize your child to the dental office experience. It will also give you an idea of what challenges you may face during the real visit.
  3. Lean Back
    During the dental appointment, ask the dental staff to lean your child’s chair back before he gets into it. This is a critical step, as sometimes children with neurobehavioral conditions don’t enjoy the feeling of moving backward.
  4. Give Your Child a Heavy Work Task and Sunglasses
    Giving your child a task prior to and following his dental visit may help to keep him calm. For instance, stretching therapy bands with the hands may help to soothe your child. In addition, note that a dental office’s lighting will probably be uncomfortably bright. Therefore, consider allowing your child to wear sunglasses during his appointment.
  5. Use the Tell-Show-Do Method
    The tell-show-do method
    is a convenient shorthand method of explaining to your child what his dental appointment will entail. For instance, first, you can verbally tell your child what he will do during the appointment. Second, you can show your child the tools that will be used during his appointment and even let him touch these tools, if possible. Finally, you can allow your child to complete his appointment. A little verbal preparation followed by a physical demonstration can go a long way in helping to eliminate some of your child’s uncertainty about his upcoming dental appointment.
  6. Be Cognizant of Time
    Ask your child’s dental hygienist to let him know how long certain steps of the procedure will take as well. For instance, maybe the hygienist can say that a particular process will be finished by the time your child counts to 10. This will make your child feel more in control and minimize surprises during the appointment.

A trip to the dentist can be a challenging experience for many children, especially those with anxiety. However, if you follow these tips you can help ensure that your child establishes a healthy relationship with the dentist –– and in turn, is set down a path of a lifetime of healthy oral hygiene.


Author Bio: Dr. Steven DeLisle is a pediatric dentist who specializes in sedation dentistry and has experience treating children with special needs. He is the founder of Children’s Dentistry in Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing pediatric dental practices in the country.


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