Scared Parents Make Their Kids Afraid of the Dentist

Are you afraid of the dentist? If so, you can unknowingly increase the likelihood that your children will be as well, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Pediatric Dentistry (19:225-232, 2009). It has been estimated that between 6-15% of people avoid dental care due to fear of the dentist or dental phobia. Negative dental experiences as a child can have a lasting impact and make someone afraid of the dentist as an adult. The past experience that causes the most fear among patients is the memory of a dentist causing them pain during treatment and then humiliating them when they complained. These patients can remember the dentist saying things like, “This isn’t hurting you,” or “Stop being a baby.” These denigrating remarks compound the painful experience at the dental office. Even though the pain from the treatment fades quickly, the insensitive comments made by the dentist continue to live on in the minds of the recipients of those unsympathetic comments.
The study followed 1404 children from age 5 to age 9. Several factors were found to be associated with an increase in dental anxiety as the children in the study reached nine years of age. These factors included having parents that were anxious, being girls, having a tooth pulled, irregular dental visits, and those who were already anxious at age five. On a positive note, most of the children (54.3%) who were anxious at age five were not anxious when they were nine.

There are several ways dentists can improve dental visits for children and decrease the potential for anxiety later in life:

  • The dentist should be sensitive to the needs of each individual child. Patience and care during treatment will prevent anxiety in future visits.
  • Dentists should encourage parents to bring their children to the dentist by age two, earlier if there is noticeable discoloration of the baby teeth or if the child is signaling pain. The sooner the child is seen, the less likely the child will have extensive dental problems.
  • If dental treatment is required, the dentist should usually start with the procedure that will be easiest for the child to tolerate. This allows the child to build confidence for future visits.
  • The dentist should avoid giving local anesthesia for simple fillings, if possible. Newer technologies, like air abrasion and lasers can effectively remove decay in many cases, avoiding the fear evoking needle and the prolonged feeling of numbness.
  • Having a television in the treatment room with an age appropriate station will help children cope with the clinical setting of the dental office. A small toy after successful treatment gives the child something positive to associate with their dental visit.
  • Children who need extensive dental care or those that cannot be managed by the family dentist may best be treated by a specialist called a Pedodontist.

Watch Dr. Gordon’s YouTube video on dental fears.

For more information about overcoming dental fears: