The Kid Whisperer

What does Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, have to do with dental visits?

Keep reading to find out!

There’s a good reason we don’t bring parents back into the room during their child’s treatment.

Most kids do better without them. Parents often feed into their child’s anxieties and are not a calming presence in the room. I know there are good intentions involved, but it almost never translates that way.

As Cesar would say, “Remove the owners and you will see a totally different state of mind.”

If you haven’t seen his show you should check it out. He visits families who have misbehaving dogs and retrains their behavior. The kicker? The dog OWNERS need just as much retraining as the dogs. He teaches people to be a calming and relaxing presence around their dogs and shows them how to be the one in charge. Of course I don’t think that children are dogs, but the premise is the same. A calm and relaxing leader will have a calm and relaxing pack.

I see it all the time. A kid comes into our office for his first dental visit ever. I greet the child by name and with a big smile and immediately he cowers, buries his head, and refuses to look at me. Now, I know I’m not the best looking person out there, but I’m not THAT hideous.

How is it possible that a child who has never been to the dentist (no matter what the age) be that afraid? It’s not like people are born to be afraid of the dentist. This behavior, like many others, are learned behaviors. They certainly didn’t learn that behavior from our office.

I see it happen with treatment, too. A child gets pushed through the door by mom or dad and wants no part of the appointment. Through worried eyes the child starts talking about ‘shots’ and being ‘hurt’. We have NEVER used those words or said those things to a child, so I know they didn’t learn them here. Thanks a lot mom, dad, Uncle Joe, or brother Bobby. Not only have you traumatized the child, you’ve just made the next hour of my life very challenging.

Over the years, I’ve just learned to deal with the kids who were scared or difficult. I’ve suffered through hundreds of tear filled, fidgety pediatric visits.

Then one day, it dawned on me. In order to get through to the kids, I had to get through to the parents first.

Hey Parents…NEWSFLASH! WE aren’t the ones scaring your kids! We aren’t the bad guys! But thanks to society’s attitudes about dentists, we certainly seem that way!

I decided it was time to start having little private chit chats with the parents. (By the way, I never let the kids see me talking privately with their parents. The kids will get suspicious.)

“Mr. Smith, we do a really great job with kids here, and I know we can have a successful visit with your son, too. Some children don’t do well at the dentist because they get incorrect input and influence from other people, especially from other siblings or mean uncles. Know what I mean?

(I usually pause here and let that sink it for a second.)

“I know your son can be a good listener and that we can get him through everything just fine, but only if no one from the outside makes it difficult for him. I know how much you want your son to have a positive visit, so let me do all the explaining to your son at that time. If he asks you anything about it, tell him that you don’t know what will happen. In fact, don’t even tell him he needs to come back for treatment until that morning. We don’t want any anxiety to build for days beforehand. Actually, that’s the exact opposite of what we want to happen.”

Parents respond really well to this because they really DO want their children to do well at the dentist. I know parents (usually) have good intentions, but a lot of times, they just say boneheaded things. I don’t think parents realize how much anxiety they unintentionally create for their kids.

“Be good or I’ll have the dentist give you a shot!”

“The dentist doesn’t want you eating any candy!”

“The dentist is going to be mad and yell at you for not brushing your teeth!”

“Don’t be scared!”

Why in the world would someone think that any of those statements would RELAX a kid? Would it relax you? A parent is basically telling his child that a dentist is going to shoot him, take away his candy, and then yell at him in the process. I can’t imagine why any child wouldn’t jump at the chance to participate!

Hey Parents…NEWSFLASH! If you want your child to be calm and relaxed, then please model calming and relaxing behavior!

Children who are visually anxious GENERALLY have parents who behave the same way. Cesar Millan would agree to this in regards to anxious dogs and their owners.

Words like, “Shot”, “Mad”, “Yell”, or “Scared” have negative connotations and they plant a very negative seed in a child’s mind. Don’t use those words!

How about putting a positive, calming and relaxing spin on things by saying…

“Being a good listener will make today’s appointment really easy and get you to the prize basket quicker! What prize would you like today?”

“Mom and Dad decide how much candy you can eat. We all want you to brush afterwards! My favorites are snickers and M&M’s. What are your favorites?”

“Let’s show the dentist how well you’ve been taking care of your teeth! How many teeth do you think you have today?”

Notice that I always follow up with a question. I like to keep kids focused on positive and appropriate things. I don’t want them to dwell on unnecessary anxieties.

I like working on kids. Even though I’m the office manager and usually tied to the front desk, I’m always the first one to assist with the nervous kids. I take that responsibility seriously.

When a anxious child comes into the office for treatment, I go straight out to the waiting room and get down to their level. It’s important for me to tend to the child right away. A long wait in the waiting room only increases a child’s anxiety. Here’s what I normally say…

Hello Tyler! It’s nice to see you today! Thanks for coming in! How are you?” (wait for response)

“Wow, those are cool shoes (or shirt or whatever)  you have on! I really like them! Do you think I should get a pair like that?“(wait for response)

“Do you know what we are going to do today? (wait for response)

“Well, today is going to be pretty fast and really easy. We are going to fix your tooth and I only need you to do one thing for me. All I need is for you to be a good listener. That’s it! Every time you’ve been here you are a a good listener, so that should be super easy for you.“(I like to reiterate that they’ve been good in the past, and can be good again.)

“So what’s the only thing you have to do today?” (desired response is, “Be a good listener!”)

“There’s one other funny thing I forgot to tell you. I have a surprise hanging in the room and I can’t wait to show you! It’s going to make you laugh for sure! Come on in and find it!” (This surprise is my way of intriguing them and having them want to come in the back. I hang a picture of a monkey in the room and tell the child a silly story about it. The monkey picture is strategically placed behind the child’s head. This is helpful because when the dentist needs the child to lift his chin up, we have the child look back at the monkey picture.)

During the appointment, I choose my words carefully. I stop any unnecessary office noises, and I don’t make any excited or quick moves in order to not overstimulate the child. I channel Cesar Millan’s calm and relaxing demeanor. I am constantly reminding them of what a good listener they are and how we are going to be done so fast because they are being so good.

The children go bananas for the monkey story, which I make last till the end of the appointment. At the end of the appointment, I take the picture off the wall and let them take it home to color it. They always walk right into the waiting room with the picture and show it to mom and dad. They leave the visit with some prizes and a funny monkey story to share. THAT’S what I want them to leave the office with…a funny story and some prizes! I never want them to leave upset or traumatized.

To the moms and dads out there…It is only with many years of experience and a loving heart that we ask you for two small favors:

  1. Please remain in the waiting rooms during your child’s dental appointment. Everything will be ok! We will get your child through the appointment in a very age-appropriate way. Too often parents say a lot of boneheaded things at inappropriate times (“Here comes the shot, hold still or it will hurt!”) and then we have to work harder to regain the trust of the patient.
  2. Please do not let Uncle Joe retell his dental experience from 30 years ago. Uncle Joe exaggerates. No dentist in history has actually placed his knee on any chest during an extraction. Think of the physics of that…it wouldn’t even work!

Let’s all work together in providing a positive and healthy attitude towards dentistry for our little ones!

Here’s my disclaimer. For the record, I know that as children grow they follow certain developmental patterns. This blog is not about those behaviors. This blog is about children who exhibit irrational and inappropriate behavior modeled from poor parental behavior. This blog is not intended for all parents. It is intended for those who mean well but go about it in a unhealthy way. You know who you are.

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