Everyone experiences some discomfort in new or stressful situations. Adults might experience this when speaking in public, going on a blind date, or walking in a dark alley. Given this analogy, the fear experienced during a kids first pediatric dentist visit seems normal and unexpected. Here are four facts about the discomfort kids may feel about visiting the dentist:
Fear is the brain’s way of keeping us safe. A fear of spiders, snakes, heights, and germs is natural and logical. Even fear of public speaking is your brain’s way of protecting you from social ridicule.
With children, fear can arise for a variety of reasons. Children have a narrower range of experiences to draw on and less information to fill in blanks. As a result, your child may feel fear in the face of many of his first experiences, whether they be the first flight, first swim, or first dental cleaning. Thus, many times, fear experienced before a kid’s first pediatric dentist office visit is not a fear of the dentist but rather a fear of the unknown.
For older children, the fear may be reduced by explaining what will happen beforehand, thereby taking away some of the mystery. However, younger children have not developed the logic skills that are second nature to adults. Sometimes, children need to experience something directly before understanding it at a cognitive level. Often, fear of the dentist will subside after the first office visit.
Anxiety is not fear. Anxiety is a physical response to fear. It arises from our natural instinct for “fight or flight” when confronted with a situation perceived as dangerous. This response is not merely psychological. Rather, the perception of fear triggers a cascade of physical responses, such as the release of hormones like adrenaline. These increase heart rate, increase respiration, dilate blood vessels, and dilate the pupils to prepare the body to fight or flee.
However, a problem arises because we no longer live on an African savanna. Anxiety triggered by a kid’s first pediatric dentist visit cannot be ameliorated by either fighting or running away. With no way to use up the adrenaline, the body risks shutting down. Blood coursing to the leg and arm muscles is not flowing to the brain. Blood pressure can spike, causing the person to pass out.
While anxiety is a physical response that cannot be reasoned away, it is possible to both prepare the mind so that the anxiety attack is avoided and calm the body after an anxiety attack has started. Thus, in kids prone to anxiety attacks, explaining what will happen during the visit and keeping the kid calm before the kid’s first pediatric dentist visit can stave off the fight or flight response. If an anxiety attack does occur, focusing on breathing often helps a kid weather the cascade of adrenaline.
Separation anxiety is a form of anxiety that is specifically triggered by the fear of being apart from a parent or caregiver. Separation anxiety can be expressed by crying, clinging, or arguing when in a situation where the parent and child are separated.
Separation anxiety can compound anxiety felt during a kid’s first pediatric dentist visit. A simple way to address separation anxiety is to accompany the kid to the examination room.
A phobia is an acute fear that defies reason or logic. In other words, a phobia cannot be explained away. Phobias are now classified as a form of anxiety. An extreme phobia may be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder.
Extreme phobias will lead the phobic to do things to avoid confronting their phobia. For example, a child may become obsessive about brushing her teeth to avoid the dentist. One sign that a phobia is more than just fear is that the child does not respond to regular comforting techniques. Because phobias are irrational, they cannot be reasoned with. Full blown phobias may require counseling to overcome them.
Fear is to be expected during a kid’s first pediatric dentist visit. Addressing the fear up front may help resolving many issues.