I am sorry to hear that your family is having so much difficulty in the aftermath of your son’s harrowing visit to the dentist. I am sure that the experience was almost as upsetting to you as it was to your son.
Learned Responses to Fear
Based on his dentist’s visit, your son has learned to fear the dentist and his office. In psychological terms, we call this a conditioned, or learned, response. Your son has learned that the dentist’s office is a fearsome place, and he has learned to respond to that place with anxiety.
Additionally, your son has learned to fear places that look like the dentist’s office, such as his preschool. This behavior is known as generalization: he generalizes his fear of a specific place, the dentist’s office, to other similar-looking places.
Understanding what is happening to your son will help you to work on resolving the issue. In order to undo a learned response, people have to experience the stimulus, or the thing that previously scared them, without feeling fear. In other words, your son would have to go through positive experiences both at the dentist and his preschool in order to learn that those places don’t always give him anxiety.
Kids and Fear: The First Step of Facing Anxiety
It’s best to start working on your son’s fear of preschool. You want to help him manage his everyday life, and preschool is a large part of that. What can you do to help him stop fearing preschool?
Start by giving him heaps of love and compassion. Your son feels traumatized, so he needs a lot of care, loving and reassurance. Do not allow people to tell him that his fears are silly and baseless, because his fears are very real to him.
He probably experiences a physiological reaction when he sees building resembling the dentist’s office; it’s likely that he feels stomach pains, shortness of breath, and/or sweating. There is nothing silly about that!
Preschool as a Positive Experience
Next, it’s important to make him view his preschool as a positive, happy place. The more he sees his preschool as a place that brings him joy and comfort, the less he will feel fear when he approaches it. Recruit the help of staff members at the preschool to help him learn to enjoy being there.
Explain to his teachers that he is feeling fearful, and ask whether one of the teachers can give him special attention during the next few weeks. They don’t have to do anything extraordinary to make him feel more secure; for example, a teacher can greet him cheerfully when he enters the classroom, then take him by the hand and bring him to a table to do a puzzle or coloring activity. The point is to give him a positive experience, not to make him the center of attention.
You can also help your son learn to associate his preschool with positive feelings by reserving an object just for school use. For example, you can buy him a special pack or markers, or a snack that he likes, and tell him that they are only for school. Again, this will help him to experience positive feelings, instead of fear, about school. He will learn that preschool is a place to be drawn to instead of feared.
Finding a Good Pediatric Dentist
Regarding his fear of dentists, you can try the same technique. A good pediatric dentist can deliver an entirely different dental experience that will teach him to respond with happiness instead of fear. Dentists who specialize in treating children typically have calm bedside manners and a slew of tricks to keep children relaxed and happy during their dental treatments. Interview a few local pediatric dentists to determine which one is most likely to help your son learn to associate the dentist with positive feelings.
You might find that your son’s fear of the dentist might be so deep that it will be difficult to coax him to visit one. In that case, consider the use of a therapist who works with phobias. A therapist will work with your son, slowly exposing him to his fear, so that he can stop his learned response of anxiety.
Learned responses can be unlearned. With a lot of care and patience, and implementing the techniques described here, you can help diminish your son’s fears.© Copyright 2014 Gilan Gertz, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Parenting