When I was little, my dad always used to say, “If you ignore your teeth, they’ll go away”. I don’t know if that’s what did it, but I’ve always taken good care of my teeth. I floss and brush carefully and religiously, and I’ve tried to instill the same respect for oral hygiene in my kids. I know, though, that along with good home care comes the requirement for a good dentist to aid in the protection of our teeth. I was so lucky to have a great dentist when I was a kid, who helped me create good habits and, possibly most importantly, never gave me cause to be afraid of going to the dentist.
As a mom, it’s been very important to me to make my kids’ early dental appointments as positive as possible. I know that if they get in the habit now, they’re more likely to keep it up as they get older. I also know that even one bad experience now can turn them into the type of adults who would rather do anything than go to the dentist. It’s not always easy, though. Little kids aren’t always up for letting a stranger get close to them, let alone for opening up their mouth for one, no matter how many reassurances they get. And the process of a dental cleaning can be uncomfortable, awkward and scary, even if you aren’t a little kid.
With Benjamin, we’ve been really lucky. First, he is just a generally cooperative kid. He wants to do the things we ask, most of the time. In fact, the vast majority of the time, simply asking him to do something — even something as “awful” as putting away his toys, or walking away from the ipad — is enough to get it to happen. We did once make a visit to a pediatric dentist who explained that if the kids were difficult, they’d be strapped down … but we only stayed long enough for them to “count” Benjamin’s teeth — code for getting the kid to allow this stranger to put a mirror in their mouth and do a quick exam — and we did not go back. Instead, we subsequently took Benjamin to our own wonderful dentist and excellent hygienist back in the US, and by the time we relocated to Vienna, he already had a positive foundation to build on. Once he realized that the dentist here had a toy bin that he could choose from after his cleanings, just like the dentist back home, he was perfectly happy to have his teeth cleaned in Austria.
With Liam, we have not been as lucky. When we moved to Austria, he hadn’t yet gotten any teeth, so he didn’t have any “pre-Austria” experience to draw on. Liam is also not generally what I would call a compliant kid. He’s not fundamentally uncooperative, either, but Liam is very unlikely to be bribed, cajoled, encouraged, pushed, led, strong-armed or threatened into doing ANYTHING that he really doesn’t want to do. You can sometimes convince him, but you can’t coerce him. When pushed, he pushes back. So while lots of praise, encouragement and baby steps got us easily through Benjamin’s first dental cleanings, nothing could get us through Liam’s. Starting when he was about 18 months old, we started having him accompany us (including Benjamin) on our cleanings, just so he could watch the goings on and get used to the idea. This part went fine. It took a bit of patience on the part of our dentist, but after some very kind requests, Liam did once let the dentist count his teeth without complaint. Once.
There was nothing obviously traumatic about that visit, but after that one visit to the dentist when he was about 2, he was totally done with the idea. We could explain to him what was going to happen, and he would simply say “no”. We could ask if he was worried, and he’d say, “I just don’t want to”. He would GO to the dentist without a problem — no tears, no worry, no fear — he would happily walk into the office, climb into my lap in the chair, and look at the dentist . . . he just wouldn’t open his mouth. No promise of toys, pleading, stern insistence or threat of withholding treats made one ounce of difference. Short of actual force, it was just not going to happen.
And so, it didn’t. Every evening at home we’d brush and floss, and we’d brush every morning. He didn’t love the process, and certainly complained more about it than B ever had, but we made it through, most every day, without major issue. But when it came to the dentist, it was just not happening.
But, as time went on, as he turned 3, and then 4, the need to have his teeth actually checked and to get the process of cleaning them started became more pressing. I would take him in every time B or myself had a cleaning, and we’d give it a try with Liam. Each time, before we went, we’d talk about what was going to happen at the dentist’s office. We’d practice at home during teeth brushing times. We’d talk about how important it is, and how everyone needs to get their teeth cleaned. B would reassure him that it had always gone fine for him. A few times, Liam allowed the dentist to look in his mouth and count his teeth, but when it came to the idea of actually cleaning them, we had no luck. He would clamp his mouth shut and completely refuse. I’d try to convince him, and he’d cry. The dentist suggested bringing him in on his own, not during someone else’s cleaning, so we tried that. Still no. The dentist suggested bringing him a month later, so he could find the surroundings more familiar. Nope.
We tried again a month after that. This time — success! He allowed the hygenist to clean 3 of his teeth. Yay! Wonderful! Lots of praise. I was certain we were on our way!
We came back again about a month later. No progress. He was still only up for getting about 3 teeth cleaned (and I was a bit frustrated that the hygenist started over with the same 3 teeth — I’d been thinking that at least we could maybe get through his mouth 3 teeth at a time . . . but no).
I try, as best I can, to balance being empathetic with my kids against the fact that certain things really DO need to happen. I get that they’re scared of the dark, but I’m not up for them sleeping with the lights on. I know that going to school can be tiring and sometimes scary when you’re little, but it’s important to go and learn. I know that vaccines hurt, but they’re essential. In this case, I couldn’t tell whether I was being overly empathetic, and basically feeding into his fears by letting him say when he’d had enough, or if my forcing the issue of him getting his teeth cleaned was making a bad situation worse. I wasn’t going to flat-out force him, and I wasn’t getting a lot of support or direction from the dental staff — I still don’t know if they thought I was going too easy on him or making too big a deal of it (and though I might not have been swayed by their opinion, I wish I had known what they thought, since they have much more experience with this than I do).
When we flew home for Christmas, I decided to try what had worked so well for Benjamin when he was little — we went to our dentist at home, had Liam watch Benjamin and I get our cleanings, and then it would be his turn. Benjamin did great. Liam got his teeth counted, but no more. At the sight of the cleaning tools, he was done. (Again.)
I was totally frustrated. I was worried about Liam’s teeth. I was tired of going to the dentist once a month. I was embarassed that though I could clean his teeth at home, I couldn’t convince him to let the dentist clean his teeth (I’m fairly certain our dental hygenist here in Austria doesn’t believe me that I was brushing and flossing his teeth every day). I was afraid of creating a lifelong phobia or setting him up for serious dentral trouble down the road. I had no idea what else to do or try.
In January, after things had calmed down from the holidays, we went back again to our dentist here in Vienna. I talked with Liam beforehand. We’d talked about what I wanted the dentist to do and why. I explained that he’d be safe. I promised that I’d hold him. I assured him that it wouldn’t be much different from what we did at home every night. He said the dentist could count his teeth, and that the hygenist could clean a few of them. I agreed that’s what we’d do.
And, for some reason, this time was completely differnt.
He was still nervous. He still wanted to go slowly and only do a few teeth at a time. But he ultimately let her clean all of his teeth. We went from 3 teeth at a time to all of his teeth at once, and he was fine. He wasn’t traumatized. He didn’t cry. He didn’t object at all. I have no idea why. I don’t know what changed. He was so proud at the end. I was so proud of him, and so relieved that we’d made that progress. I was so grateful that we’d FINALLY gotten that first cleaning done, and that it was a positive experience.
Next month, we go back to try for a second time. I’m hoping that he’ll remember that positive experience, and remember that it wasn’t as scary as he’d feared.