Yesterday I took my kids to the dentist for the first time. (They’re a little older than the general recommendations for that, and there are a lot of reasons for it. Don’t yell at me.)
Everyone who saw them there, from the receptionist, to the hygienist, to the dentist, to me, were all impressed at how well they did.
And I’m going to take full credit.
I don’t love the dentist, but I don’t mind it. I can imagine as a child it wouldn’t be a favorite things to do, but I don’t believe any experience should be a complete horror show.
However, as a new experience that involves a sensitive and intimate part of the body, strange people, a strange environment, and a requirement to sit still for a lengthy period, there are a lot of tantrum-inducing factors. There are three keys to making the trip to the dentist an easy one: preparation, honesty, and trust.
Preparation is an integral part of respectful parenting. Telling children what to expect, in as much detail as possible, sets them up for success. Children have incredibly vivid imaginations. If you discuss something with them, they can picture every detail. By talking them through an upcoming event, it’s like giving them a dress rehearsal. Consider if you have to go somewhere, but you don’t know what time, you don’t know where it is, you don’t know who will be there, and you don’t know what you will be doing. Then think about how much more at ease you feel if you take the time to look at a map and figure out where you’re going, know what time you need to show up, and how long it takes to get there, understand the type of clothes that are appropriate for the event, and have an idea of who you will see. It’s a big difference, isn’t it?
So when you tell your child about the dentist, give them as many details as you know. Tell them what day and time you’re leaving. Talk to them about the building you’ll go to, if you know. Tell them what they can expect inside the office and who they will see there. Explain what the dentist does. Describe the special chair, tools, and noises they might hear. Paint a picture for them so they can ask questions, do their own dress rehearsal, and be ready in whatever way they need to be.
Honesty when you do the preparation is absolutely necessary. I often think we don’t give children enough credit for what they can handle. Going to the dentist can be uncomfortable. Children will have to do things they don’t normally do (like lay still and open their mouth while someone pokes around with metal instruments). Conventional wisdom tells us this will frighten children, and we should use euphemisms or skirt the truth so we don’t cause anxiety, but I believe the opposite is true. We can be careful in our word choices when we describe things to children (using a familiar word like “tool” instead of “dental instrument”), but we should be honest. Telling your child they will feel a little spot of ice-cream when in reality they will get a local anesthetic shot in their mouth does not help them feel comfortable at the dentist.
Instead, say, “it might feel strange when the dentist counts your teeth”. “Their special toothbrush might be loud”. “The water they use to rinse your mouth might be cold”.
All those things are the reality of going to the dentist. It’s not the same as going to a playgroup or doing something fun. The dentist may have things to make the experience more enjoyable (like toys in the waiting room, or music or a video playing), but there are still things that might be unpleasant. It’s better to let your child know ahead of time.
Which leads to the importance of trust. If you regularly use preparation and honesty as part of your parenting, you build up trust. If your child trusts you, they will feel comfortable enough to be calm, even when faced with the discomfort of the dentist. However, it’s still important that your child knows they can stop the visit at any time without repercussions if they are too uncomfortable.
Whether it’s a routine visit or something more involved like a filling, there is a lot of sensitivity involved in going to the dentist. It shouldn’t matter whether the child is too tired, the dentist hits a nerve, or something just feels “off” — you have to trust your child if they say they’re done. It’s their body, and they deserve to have control over whether or not someone is touching them. When they say enough, it’s enough. It also means that if they don’t feel comfortable returning to that particular office or dentist, you respect that decision and find another one.
Using these three keys will make sure you have an uneventful visit to the dentist or other healthcare professional. Getting regular healthcare is part of essential self-care, and making the experience enjoyable for your children makes them feel confident about doing what they need to take care of their own bodies.
Photo credit: my own