In honour of “National Children’s Dental Health Month”, this blog post will be focussing on how best to handle children in the office. Fear is a common and significant issue with children coming in for a first, second or even fifth time. It’s a scary thing to have to visit the dentist. And sometimes the procedure that needs to get done is scarier still. So how do you, as the dental professional– dentist, hygienist, Office Manager, or Dental Receptionist– reduce a child’s fear. For this particular blog post, I took a look at how the professionals do it, and came up with a list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to taking care of your youngest and most vulnerable patients.
Do be empathetic
Practicing empathy with children allows you to understand how they are feeling and allows them to start feeling better about the exam or procedure. This means it is time to go back to when you were a child and all those times that you were scared, anxious or unsure when sitting in the dentist’s chair. What did your dentist do for you? Was it effective or did his/her attitude only make you feel worse? The first step to providing comfort to your youngest patients is being able to understand what they’re going through.
Do focus on what’s going well
This one comes right from a professional pediatric dentist, Greg Psaltis. It is important to focus on the positive progression of the appointment. Even though I’m not a child, my dentist talked me through my procedures using a kind tone of voice. He also made sure to let me know how well I was doing and how close to the end we were. It helped. My anxiety and fear drained away because I was a part of the process. Psaltis writes “Be specific in your feedback . . . Be clear by saying, ‘It is very helpful when you hold your mouth open because I can see better,’ or ‘When you keep your head still like that, I can work more quickly.’ This provides definite teaching to the child so that she will better know how to help you.”
Do let the child participate in the decisions being made
There is no doubt that the scariest thing to face is that of the unknown. What’s going to happen? Will it go well? How long is it going to be? These are all questions that you have to imagine a child is thinking when they get into that chair. Linda Tabakman, an office manager for Maple Creek Dental describes her experiences working with one terrified child during his first visit. She admitted to feeling helpless because she didn’t know how to make the child feel better. Then she allowed the child to participate.
“I began by showing him a picture of his teeth. He was thus better able to understand why he was in so much pain. I let him know that I was very sorry he had suffered so much over the last two days and that I wanted the pain to stop. I told him that these were his teeth and his pain — he could choose to leave and come back another time, or he could decide to take care of the problem today. I explained that he had to decide whether he wanted to be really scared only once, or go home and have to be really scared twice. He looked at me and said he only wanted to be scared once.”
Do explain everything
The best way to reduce a child’s fear is to go through the entire procedure step-by-step. But the only way for the child to understand the steps is for you to use language and terms they can understand. As Psaltis explains “By telling the patient (in simple, understandable words) what is happening, they can anticipate the next instrument, sensation, or procedure with minimal anxiety.” If a part of the procedure is going to hurt, be sure to warn your patients before you perform it. Letting them know helps them become mentally prepared.
Don’t bring your anxiety into the office
The energy you bring into a room sets the tone for the entire procedure. Anxiety or tension charges the room with negative energy. We are all sensitive to it. It is less about what you say and more about what you don’t. A stiff upper lip and a tense stance will immediately signal the start of a very negative visit. Avoid this by leaving your anxieties outside the office. Put on a smile and remember who is sitting there waiting and how terrified they already are. Practice empathy (mentioned above) and set the tone immediately by coming into the room relaxed and prepared for anything.
The problem with sugar-coating, either to reduce fear or to make something sound more pleasant than it is, is that this is verging on falsehood. Using positive language and easy-to-understand terminology is effective, but sugar-coating tends to leave the child with a false sense of security that could inevitably become a betrayal of their trust when they discover that the procedure wasn’t as pleasant as you had lead them to believe.
Don’t keep their parents away
An anxious child’s parents may be their only security blanket when it comes to scary procedures. Let the parents sit in the room with them. Just the parents being there can make the child feel more comfortable and less tense.
Don’t use age-inappropriate or negative terminology
The thing to remember here is that these are children, and yes, we certainly underestimate at times a child’s intelligence, however, it is best to use terminology they can understand as well as terminology that is a lot more positive than negative. Have you ever been so scared that even the simplest terms don’t make sense? You stare, blink, and shake your head, because– what? This is exactly why, even if your youngest patients are smart beyond their years, you should still keep the terminology short and easy to understand. In Psaltis’ blog post, he explains how he even alters the terminology to something simple and much easier on the ears when talking about giving shots. “In our practice, we don’t give ‘shots,’ we ‘put teeth to sleep.’”
Remember that these children are patients too and by earning their respect and trust, you will undoubtedly encourage their loyalty to your practice as the years go by. Do you have any advice about how to effectively take care of your youngest patients? If so, please tell us your stories in the comments below. To learn more about how some of the experts take care of children in the office, please don’t hesitate to check out the links below.