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Developing a Fear of the Dentist

Sep 1, 2008
In 1947 I had a bike accident which resulted in my needing root canals on two front teeth. The dentist did a good job with the tools and techniques he had available. But it was still a brutal experience. It took five appointments as he used the slow speed drills. In spite of his caring approach I still developed a life long fear of going to the dentist.

Things have changed over the last 58 years. I now have a very gentle dentist who can numb my mouth with such skill that I barely feel the needle. However it was only a few years ago that I overcame my fear of dentistry.

Had this dentist and his skills been available in 1947 I would have lived my life with a totally different feeling about going to the dentist.

Unfortunately many children are developing the same kind of fears I had in spite of the good techniques and equipment used by our modern day dentists. This fear is not being generated by the dentists, but by well meaning, loving parents who do not realize how kids are uniquely tuned into the emotions of the adults who love them.

As a result of the tight connection between children and their parents, kids hear and believe our unstated messages instead of the words we say.

I once observed a child willingly following a dentist into the office when suddenly he heard his mother's whining voice behind him, "It'll be alright. It won't hurt." With this the child turned and ran back to his mother, clinging to her and refusing to go with the dentist. This is an example of a child picking up the unstated fear of his mother. Her words said that things were safe, but her unstated message gave away her concern. The child had no problem deciphering this message. He thought to himself, "Uh, oh, this must not be so safe after all. If this is safe, mom wouldn't have to reassure me."

Kids learn early in life that when parents have no concerns they don't reassure. When they are going to order at the fast food counter, enter a theater, or go into the supermarket, children don't hear their parents saying, "It'll be alright." When healthy parents have no concerns about something, they don't reassure kids about it.

In all walks of life, the unstated message is stronger than the stated one. Here are some common examples of words that say one thing and mean something else.

"What is the matter with you?"
"How many times have I told you?"
"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times."
"What in the world were you thinking when you did that?"
"You're sister was in this class last year. She was such a good student."

I bet you had no trouble translating these and figuring out what is really meant. Most people have an uncanny ability to ignore the words that are heard and lock in on the real message. Children in their formative years are even more dependent upon this skill and are quicker to understand the true meanings because they are so tightly tuned into the emotions of their parents. The reason for this is that their brain's filter system is not yet fully developed.

What does this mean? It means that the messages and opinions of their parents quickly become a child's own realities, not easily removed later. A child whose parent has fears about a situation such as dental procedures can develop a life-long anxiety about visits to the dentist. Little will the child realize that the fear is not based in reality, but was conveyed by an anxious parent trying to help the child avoid concern.


You might be saying to yourself, "Uh, oh. I've already done that to my child. How do I undo it? What do I do now?"

Here is a conversation by a very wise mother:

Mom: "Sweetie, I need to apologize. I may have made you worry more about going to the dentist than I should have. When I was your age the dentist didn't have the wonderful tools he has today and it was kind of painful. I remember how I used to be afraid. Now that's not true. It's a lot easier now.

Ive been going into the examination room with you because I didn't' want you to feel like I did when I was little, but I just realized that it's a lot easier now. And I figured out that you are big enough to handle it on your own. So go in and have a good time. I have some reading to do. I'll see you when you get through."

Child: "But I want you to go in with me."

Mom: "I'm sure you do, and I'll be here when you come out. I've got some reading to do. See ya, Sweetie."

Mom's unstated message here is that she has no concerns and that she knows the child can handle it. Compare that to a mom who sat by the child, rubbed his arm, and said, "It's ok. I'm here. I won't let him hurt you." What an atrocity! This parent's unstated message was, "Being in the dentist's office is horrible. The dentist is a mean person, and you have every right to be afraid." This child is probably going to face a life time of fear of dentistry. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy.

I love the story about the wise old dentist who had a child in the office who refused to do anything he was told.

The doctor sent him out into the waiting room and told his mother to come in alone. "Mom," he said. "This calls for drastic action. I want you to bring that boy back into the room. When you get in here I'm going to start giving you a lot of orders. Every time I tell you to do something, I want you to say, 'Yes sir.' And quick do what I tell you to do. Can you do that for me?"

"Yes sir. I can do that."

"Good," replied the doctor. "We need to change his belief system."

Mom brought the boy into the office and the doctor immediately ordered, "Mom, sit in this chair!"

"Yes sir," she answered, and quickly sat in the chair.

"Mom! Hang up your coat on this hook!"

"Yes sir," she replied again.

After giving her some more orders and getting the same reply each time, he ordered her onto his dentist's chair and said, "Mom. Now open you mouth."

"Yes sir," she answered again.

"Now mom, leave the room and let me work with your son."

"Yes sir."

"Now, son. Get in my chair and open your mouth."

After watching him mom's reactions, what do you think this little boy answered? You're right. It was, "Yes sir." He had taken his cue from his mother.
About the Author
Jim Fay, one of America's most sought-after presenters in the fields of parenting and school discipline, and Kristan Leatherman co-authored "Millionaire Babies or Bankrupt Brats?," the newest book from the Love and Logic Institute, Inc. To learn more about Jim Fay, Love and Logic, or Kristan Leatherman, visit Millionaire Babies.
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