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Helping a Child with a Phobia of Brushing Teeth

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Some young children can be fussy when it comes to brushing teeth but for those with Odontarrupophobia, this simple daily routine can be a harrowing ordeal. Unfortunately, setting up a rewards system for your child is not enough in helping them see past their phobia. If anything, it further solidifies their fear as it implies the process is something to be endured and rewarded for.

A phobia of teeth brushing is often grounded in early childhood trauma such as painful dentist visits or an accident which led to damaged teeth. In some cases though, sufferers simply despise the taste and sensation of toothpaste. Below are some of the underlying causes for Odontarrupophobia. Hopefully the accompanying tips can help you take the right approach in tackling your child's fear of brushing their teeth.

Taste and texture

Many kids despise the physical sensation of brushing teeth that can't always be alleviated with cartoony brushes or fun toothpaste flavours. Your child may find toothbrush bristles too hard, causing an unpleasant, irritable sensation on the gums or the tongue.

As far as toothpaste is concerned, your child may view it as an entirely alien substance—after all, it isn't food and we're not advised to swallow it. What's more, the foam created in brushing can cause a gag reflex which prompts a fear cycle of feeling physically sick at the thought of bringing toothpaste into contact with the tongue. Fortunately, these deep-seated feelings can be overcome with plenty of patience and the right tools:

  • Invest in a toothbrush with extra soft bristles to provide your child with more comfort.
  • For those with poor gag reflexes, electric toothbrushes can be a great choice as the brush head is very small and the controlled, circular motion does the hard work for you, especially in gag prone areas like the back teeth and tongue.
  • There are toothpastes and mouthwash products on the market which create less foam. Look for products aimed at dry mouths as this can help with sensitive gag reflexes. These varieties often have a milder, more pleasant taste to help with feelings of nausea too.

Length of brushing time

Most of us find brushing teeth tedious, but seconds feel like minutes with Odontarrupophobia. Playing your child's favourite song can provide a fun distraction, but when it comes down to it, they need a very clear indication of how long they need to tolerate this for. The clearest way to do this is to time them the old school way: a two/three minute hourglass timer. Watching numbers count down on a digital clock can be off-putting and can seem longer to your child. By using an hourglass sand timer, your child can have a very visual (and slightly hypnotic) grasp of how much time remains.

The length of brushing time is also coupled with the fact that these two minutes are spent watching ourselves in the mirror. Watching the toothpaste foam up in their mouth can add to your child's fear and give them a sensory overload.

To combat this, take at least one sense out of the equation and turn the lights out or get your child to close their eyes or remove their glasses if applicable. This need only be a temporary solution. Once they start to feel more accustomed to the physical sensation of brushing, you can slowly re-introduce them to the visual aspect.

Dentist visits

The fear your child is reliving every day is far worse than anything they may encounter in the company of a gentle and understanding child dentist. If they have suffered pain at the hands of a previous dentist, it can be challenging to move past this, but there are a number of ways you can ease them back into viewing dental visits as a harmless and normal routine:

  • Arrange a chat-only appointment with your local dentist to discuss your child's concerns. Your dentist may recommend starting off with a mouthwash to clean their teeth or using a small bristled orthodontic tooth brush before gradually moving up to a regular size.
  • Take them to each of your appointments. If your child is there to witness you looking relaxed and positive in the chair, it can slowly help them break their own links between a fear of brushing and of visiting the dentist.
  • Figure out the real reason for the phobia. Your child's phobia can stem from a past failure or criticism regarding their teeth - because of which, they feel immense pressure to redeem themselves. Emphasise to your child that the dentist is never angry or judgemental about their level of oral care. Bring this up during their next visit to ensure they hear it from the horse's mouth too.