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Dental Anxiety: Psychological Techniques To Help Children

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Few children look forward to a visit to the dentist, but some kids suffer from serious dental anxiety. Dental anxiety is a serious problem that can affect your child's health. In 2005, a British girl died of starvation because of an extreme fear of dentists. While this case was unusual, parents should look for ways to help their children overcome these anxieties, and many dentists recommend psychological techniques for kids before turning to sedation dentistry. Learn more about these techniques, and find out if they could help your child.


The tell-show-do technique is a form of desensitization that allows your child to overcome the fear that he or she does not have control over the situation. During any examination or treatment, the dentist will:

  • Tell your child exactly what will happen
  • Show what will happen using a finger or model
  • Do the procedure exactly as described

This technique is effective when the dentist uses simple, non-threatening language and engages your child at every step. The most crucial part of this technique is the interaction your child has with the dentist. Children will often feel less anxious when they can touch instruments before the dentist uses them.

Structured time

Children often don't understand how long a procedure will take, and this uncertainty can quickly cause anxiety. Structured time counters these fears by making it clear to the child what is happening and breaking the work into manageable chunks.

This technique is useful for children who suffer panic attacks. When kids know that something will last for only two minutes, or they will take a break shortly, they are less inclined to panic. In some cases, dentists may recommend that mom or dad count out loud in intervals of seconds, particularly for children who are unfamiliar with the process.


Doctors recommend hypnosis (or hypnotherapy) to treat many psychological or emotional problems. Studies show that dental patients who use hypnosis have a higher tolerance to pain, and hypnotherapy is an effective way to control gagging and bleeding during dental work.

As well as using a dentist who practices hypnotherapy, parents can buy CDs and workbooks for children that help them use these techniques at home. Studies show that hypnosis can help alleviate the symptoms of dental anxiety in children undergoing anesthesia.


Relaxation techniques can help children overcome panic attacks and other dental anxiety symptoms. It isn't always easy helping kids cope with these situations, but simple relaxation techniques are easy to remember – and easy for parents to replicate with their children.

Techniques include:

  • Deep breathing (sometimes called belly breathing)
  • Square breathing (where you imagine your mind moving around a square and gradually slow down as you move)
  • Toe tensing (which draws tension down from the rest of the body)

Relaxation techniques can't generally cure dental anxiety, but they are a good way to deal with bursts of panic.


Desensitization is a useful way for parents to help their children cope with a visit to the dentist before they even leave home. This simple technique gradually allows the child to become less fearful because he or she has experiences that resemble what will happen in the dental surgery.

Things you can try at home include:

  • Use a topical anesthetic gel at home to practice the feeling of numb gums
  • Use an electric toothbrush to get an idea about the noises you can hear in the surgery
  • Reading books and looking at pictures online together

Systematic desensitization uses relaxation techniques to help the child deal with a hierarchy of situations or objects that cause anxiety (such as the dentist's drill). You'll normally work with a therapist to build an effective program of activities that can help ease your child's anxiety.

Dental anxiety is a significant problem for children, but psychological techniques can help overcome these fears. Talk to a dentist like Dr. Frank W. Sallustio for more advice, and find an approach that's right for your child. If psychological techniques don't help, sedation dentistry may be an option.