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Sometimes, dental fear is like a contagious disease, passed from grandparents to parents to children, says Cynthia Weideman, D.D.S.

Weideman—aka “Dr. Cindy”—would know. Her family has been practicing pediatric dentistry in the Sacramento region for more than 35 years, starting with her father’s Carmichael practice (he’s now retired), which eventually moved to Citrus Heights, the current location.

Through the years, Weideman and her father, Michael Weideman, D.D.S., have watched generation after generation of young patients come through the door. One thing that hasn’t changed: fear of the dentist.

Very commonly, says Weideman, the fear has been instilled by someone else—a friend, sibling, parent or even Grandma. “A sibling will say, ‘If you go to the dentist, you’ll have to get a shot,’ or ‘I hate the dentist,’” Weideman says. Parents also have been known to use the dentist as a form of punishment, she says. “Some will tell a child, ‘If you’re not good, you’ll have to go to the dentist.’”

What can a dentist do to help kids over the hump? The first step, Weideman says, is figuring out where the fear comes from. (This is where her psych degree comes in handy.) Naturally, they are afraid of being hurt. (Aren’t we all?) But there are other fears—of being unable to breathe, of leaving Mommy—even something as seemingly harmless as the dentist’s glove. “It’s the fear of the unknown,” says Weideman.

Sometimes, just talking about what scares them will ease their minds, she says. Gentleness and compassion also go a long way. “It’s understanding, kindness, love—taking the time to find out who they are,” says Weideman.

For children who simply cannot be made comfortable—there aren’t many of these, according to Weideman—a little laughing gas (nitrous oxide) often will do the trick. The next step might be anxiety-reducing medication (such as Valium) or, if all else fails, sedation, either in the office or the hospital. But Weideman says she’d rather avoid that because “they need those coping skills for the rest of their lives.”

If you’re a parent with a tense toddler (or teen), Weideman suggests the following:

Talk frequently about teeth and the importance of dental health. Familiarity fights fears.

Read books to your children, such as Barney Goes to the Dentist, which may help them feel more comfortable about visiting the dentist.

Have kids practice brushing their teeth while lying down. Sounds weird, but as Weideman explains, “Kids are sometimes afraid to lie down when they come to the dentist, because they’re afraid they’re going to choke.”

Practice role-playing. Take turns being the dentist. A simple game: counting teeth.

Don’t tease or threaten a child about going to the dentist.

Don’t talk about shots or drills.

Inform the dentist if your child is afraid of something specific (such as loud noises) so the dentist can prepare accordingly.

In some cases, the best thing a parent can do is address his or her own dental issues, notes Weideman. “Sometimes,” she says, “I have to help the parents get past their fears, too.”

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