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Help children overcome their dentist anxiety

You say your child fears the dentist? How can this be? The dentist is BFF with the Tooth Fairy! Which means the dentist is likely bros with Santa Claus, too! What's not to like?

But if your child will not listen to reason, here are 10 tips to help ease fears.

1.Know that some dental anxiety is normal. Children are typically a bit fearful of new experiences. Their fear need not make you afraid. Stay calm and upbeat. Repeat.

2.Don't contribute to negative stereotypes of dentists. My first memory of anything dentist-related is my 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.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 don't care if you don't actually feel that way. Do not push your own issues onto your child.

4.Practice first. Play "dentist." Watch fun YouTube videos featuring children at the dentist or read books on the topic. Then role-play, with parent acting as "patient" first. Lie back; let your child poke around in your mouth. Switch roles. This should be 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. Examples: "You will follow all the dentist's directions the first time." "You will sit in the chair until the dentist says it is OK to get up."

6.Plan a reward together in advance. Rewards motivate. Your child earns it by following the rules. This should be some fun activity (not costly) right after the appointment so your child has something to look forward to.

7.Don't over-reassure your child. "It's going to be all right; don't worry, the people here are nice" 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 convey 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 behavior. "I love the way you are sitting still in the chair," "Great job following directions," "You are being so cooperative" all should be on auto-repeat.

9.No avoidance; no escape. Do all you can to keep a distressed child from escaping the appointment before the end. She'll leave demoralized and likely will 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 care, a visit to a mental-health provider is warranted. This should be someone who can provide cognitive-behavioral therapy, the evidence-based care for anxiety for children and adults. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies offers a therapist listing at

Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, lead psychologist of the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, wrote this for the "Healthy Kids" blog on Read more at


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