Regular visits to the dentist should be routine and trouble free. If children are exposed to the dental surgery from a very young age and assuming they maintain good dental hygiene, there is every chance they will escape the need for fillings or extractions. Even if this isn’t the case, most dental procedures are pain free or involve minor discomfort at most. Despite this, around 10 per cent of children and adolescents are considered to be dental phobic. Where does the fear come from and how might it be overcome?
Fear and anxiety is a natural response to threatening situations and for many people a visit to the dentist is a prime example. Even a routine check up might indicate that treatment is needed and this takes us down the path of injections, drills, suction noises, smells and the prospect (albeit usually unfounded) of pain. Even so, some of these dental anxieties may have a foundation, perhaps because of a previously uncomfortable extraction, which leaves the person feeling anxious about their next visit. Other fears are learned and therefore without personal experience or foundation. These fears may come from the harrowing stories spread around by others. Fear of the unknown is another factor. The unaccustomed environment of the dental surgery and not knowing what to expect from the stranger in a facemask wanting to put things in your mouth is an anxiety-provoking situation.
Parents and family members are significant both in the transmission of dental phobia or the development of more positive attitudes towards dental visits and treatments. A recent study from the University of Madrid compared the different roles that the father and mother play in transmitting dental phobia to their children. As with previous studies it was found that the higher the fear in one family member, the higher the level in the rest of the family. Fathers were found to play an important part in the transmission of dental fear, as, according to the study, children seem to mainly pay attention to the emotional reactions of fathers when deciding if a visit to the dentist will be stressful.
Most dentists have tried and tested ways of introducing children to check ups and putting them at ease. Parents are sometimes asked to join the child in the surgery but sometimes they are asked to remain in the waiting room. An upset child is sometimes better without the parent who may act as a distraction.
Preparing a child for a visit to the surgery should not be anxiety laden. Parents should avoid words like “pain” or phrases like “keep still or it might hurt.” They should accentuate the positives by saying the dentist will help to keep their teeth strong and healthy and will show them what to do.
Chapman, H.R & Kirby-Turner, N.C. Dental Fear in Children – a proposed model. British Dental Journal 187, 408 - 412 (1999)
Published online: 23 October 1999 doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.4800293