Dental anxiety is increasingly being recognized as a major worry for our public health system, since failing to visit the dentist regularly can lead to poor oral health. Dental anxiety is prevalent among children, with research indicating that almost 20 per cent of kids are afraid of visiting a dental care professional. The condition can occur for many reasons – children may have heard stories from friends in the playground, the smell and sounds of a dental office may cause them to feel anxious, or they may have issues with having their personal space invaded.
Dental anxiety is something that professionals need to take seriously. Though each patient is an individual and what works for one patient may have the opposite effect in another, these are some ideas for lower stress levels for your younger patients in your own dental practice:
- Teach your young patients relaxation techniques: Rushing through a visit with a young patient who already has anxiety, can only worsen the situation. Include time for relaxation in their appointment, trying out various methods. One is progressive muscle relaxation, in which children are told to tense then relax the muscles in their body, starting from their toes, to their face. There are excellent online resources available to help you guide children through a progressive muscle relaxation exercise in a fun way. Another excellent exercise for stress, is controlled breathing. There is a wide array of online apps that will guide your patient through a five-minute controlled breathing session. Children are taught to take time to inhale, but to take even longer to exhale, allowing their stomach to expand as they inhale. Another idea is the use of meditation CDs for children. These comprise various short meditation exercises, and encourage children to use visualization and breathing to achieve a greater state of calm.
- Keeping things simple: While explaining procedures to children can help them allay their fears, keep the information simple and short. Giving too many details can alarm children and they can fear the worst. You might consider doing a small role play before actually working on their teeth, explaining the sights, sounds and tastes they are likely to experience.
- Entertaining them:Try to create a child-friendly environment. Invite children to listen to their favorite kind of music while you are treating them and make sure that your clinic is warm and inviting. If you specialize in pediatric dentistry, white walls and minimalist décor should be replaced with an appealing, colorful design.
- Train your staff to be sensitive to anxiety: In a fascinating article on risk management in a dental setting, the authors point out that one of the biggest mistakes dentists make when it comes to legal liability, is failing to maintain a good chairside manner with patients. Staff that is brusque can trigger anxiety and can also reduce the likelihood that younger patients will want to return to your practice. The environment surrounding the dental room itself is vital; ensure that your staff likes children and is willing to go the extra mile to make their patients feel right at home. When hiring staff, ask them how they might help a young patient with anxiety. Those who are more empathetic will probably have a few good ideas that you can incorporate as standard practice in your clinic.
- Speak to the child’s parents:Don’t assume that you have a magical solution to child anxiety. Parents are the best source of information regarding the type of approach that works best to calm their child’s stress. The child may have a special toy they like to keep around them; encourage parents to bring the toy, or any other item that will comfort children. Sometimes, things work best when the parent (rather than the dentist) calms the child right before the treatment.
- Reschedule if necessary:If a child repeatedly refuses to open their mouth, or begins to show signs that a panic attack may arise soon, stop and try relaxation techniques. If these do not work, don’t be afraid to suggest that parents reschedule an appointment. If the child must have a complex procedure, try to break it up into shorter ones, so that your patient does not have to remain in the dental chair for too long.
- Use non-verbal communication to your advantage:Reassure child patients with a smile and laughter. Use short, simple sentences to communicate with them. Try to engage them by asking questions you think they might enjoy answering. Above all, ensure you are relaxed when you attend to them. Children can be very sensitive when it comes to picking up anxiety in others, so while patience and empathy towards them goes a long way, make sure to stop and check your own state, exercising self-compassion and making sure your quality of life is high enough so that you can relax and recoup energy when required.