What Can I Do If My Kid Freaks Out About Routine Dental or Pediatric Appointments?

Trips to the pediatrician and dentist are commonly feared by kids. This fear ranges from mild discomfort to debilitating anxiety. Let me offer six strategies to help:

#1: Avoid unhelpful reassurances. As I’ve written in other entries, a reassurance is a cue that danger is approaching. While parents don’t intend for their reassurance to be heard this way, kids often hear “okay, time to start freaking out.” Think about this for a second. If you were meeting with me in my office and I told you not to be worried about the ceiling collapsing on our heads, you, of course, would start to wonder about the security of my ceiling. Wait until your child shows distress before reassuring, and then keep them brief and proportionate. If they don’t work, as they often don’t, try the other strategies listed below.

#2: Prepare. Confronting fears is like swimming in a cold lake. At the end of the day, it is sustained exposure to the feared object that calms a person down (i.e., one gets used to it).  Some people know this intuitively and are inclined to cannon ball in. But, many prefer to go in slowly, getting used to the water as they go. This is what preparing your child for the appointment is akin to. If you go to Amazon and type in search terms like “kid, dentist” under books, you’ll get a myriad of choices that will allow you to discuss what the medical appointment might be like. You can also get books that generally help with anxiety. My favorite along those lines is the Scaredy Squirrel series by Melanie Watt. (I have the entire series in my office, including a Scaredy Squirrel puppet.) A related technique is to visit the office on a day when your child doesn’t have an appointment, spending time in the waiting area while doing the next strategy.

#3: Relax your child. A relaxed body and anxiety are like oil and water: they can’t mix. So, you can try to train your child to flush anxiety out of his or her body. The three elements to this are breath, muscles and mind. I tend to focus on the first two with kids. I ask kids to pretend that their lungs are in their lower belly, instead of their chest, and to breath deeply, but comfortably, in and out from there. I also ask them to try to make all of their muscles like a cooked, rather than an uncooked, piece of pasta as I walk them through their muscle groups in a soothing voice. There are also resources you can acquire to facilitate your child’s training along these lines. One of my favorites is the relaxation CD that my friend Dr. Mary Alvord and her colleagues have created. Also, and if the cost benefit ration seems worth it, you can acquire a small, portable biofeedback device that can help your child get into a relaxed state; I like the emWave2 for this purpose.

#4: Distract. Once in the office, try to distract your child with something interesting. I was on the sidelines of a baseball game recently when a young girl, who was barefoot, stepped on a wasp. She started crying in terror and pain. I broke out a couple of magic tricks (I keep them with me) and distracted her, reducing both her pain and her anxiety (and delighting her mother). There are an endless number of ways to do this: read a story, play an electronic game, discuss the details of a fun activity coming up that weekend, and so forth. If the medical procedure your child is going to receive allows for this, distract your child during it as well; if it doesn’t, ask if he or she can listen to a portable music player that you provide.

#5: Reward. I wouldn’t do this unless you know that your child is going to struggle. But, if you’re confident that’s the case, tell your child that if he or she is brave, and doesn’t put up a fight, that you will reward him or her afterwards, specifying what the reward will be. Try to keep the reward proportionate to the level of challenge your child is experiencing. So, the reward can be as small as going to ride swings at a local park or as big as a trip to a water park. Then reward, or don’t, based upon how cooperative your child was.

#6: Get help. If these techniques fail please consider consulting with a qualified child mental health professional. Often these kinds of problems can be remedied quickly with treatments that beat having a couple of adults restrain a terrified child. To get a referral near you click here.

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