Some children are so scared of visiting the dentist, they require sedation or a general anesthetic before treatment can be completed. However, this approach only adds costs and risks to what otherwise could be a quick and easy appointment. Researchers at the University of Sheffield School of Clinical Dentistry are now investigating how cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help these children conquer their fears and set them on a lifelong path to oral health.
“In Sheffield alone, every week 30 to 40 children go to hospital and have a general anesthetic for dental treatment either because they are very young or because they are too afraid to have it done at the dental surgery. Without help to overcome their fears, these children will remain scared of dental treatment and have poorer dental health long-term as a result,” said professor Zoe Marshman, BDS, MPH, DDPH, FDS (DPH), PhD.
CBT helps people understand how their fears make them feel, think, and behave to they can develop their own solutions for overcoming them. Using the principles of CBT, Marshman and her colleagues teamed with parents and children to develop resources including Your Teeth: You Are in Control, a guidebook for children between the ages of 9 and 16 with dental anxiety.
These resources aim to help children feel comfortable talking about their worries, build trust with the dental team, and, most importantly, put children in control, the researchers said. Also, these resources encourage children to write “a message to their dentist” explaining what they want to happen—and what they don’t want to happen.
Children can use the guide to dictate what they think will help them cope with their anxieties based on a list of activities. For some children, this means choosing music to listen to during treatment. For others, it’s squeezing a stress ball or having small rewards for making progress during treatment.
When used over a series of visits, these resources have been shown to reduce fear of the dentist and the number of children who need to go to a hospital for a general anesthetic or sedation, the researchers said. Children also feel happier about going to the dentist and miss or cancel fewer appointments, the researchers noted.
Your Teeth: You Are in Control is currently being rolled out across the National Health Service to help children with anxiety across England. But it also has been translated into six other languages, including Mandarin and Arabic, helping children around the world. By giving children control during dental procedures, the researchers said, Your Teeth: You Are in Control is transforming children’s experiences of dental treatment now and in the future.
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