A Very Unsettling Dentist Visit

It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I held my sons hand as he wiggled and cried. He was scared. A dental assistant held down his arms and kept him in place. Another tried to show Thaddeus the tools they were going to use and explain to him the procedure of a polpotomy (sort of like a root canal) in childish language.

My son wasn't buying it. I tried to reassure him with my voice, "It's ok, Thad. I'm right here. They are going..." I started to attempt to explain the process of a polpotomy in a way I thought my son would understand.

"We can't have more then one person speaking at once." The dentist said, giving me a look that clearly communicated that he wanted me to be quiet. I felt a little uncomfortable with that, but stopped speaking and just squeezed my sons hand more.

Then the dentist started to explain and asked Thad to open his mouth. He didn't. He fought. He was scared. There was nothing familiar or comforting about this experience for him.

I tried to speak up and explain to him that he had to open his mouth, but before I could the dentist was speaking loudly and firmly.

"If you don't open your mouth and cooperate your mom is going to have to leave the room."

Thaddeus looked at me. I have never seen him look so completely terrified. He of course opened his mouth right away, although he continued to cry.

I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. This wasn't right.

Then the drilling started and now Thaddeus was crying hard. He kept saying "It hurts! It hurts!" In a mumbled open mouth sort of yell.

I kept thinking about my dad. He has a rare condition where his nerve endings are crossed so when they numb his mouth it numbs the wrong side. He would always tell the dentist and his parents that it hurt, but they would all dismiss it and say that it was just in his head. It wasn't till he was an adult that someone listened to him and found out the truth.

As I saw the distress on my sons face and felt his body tighten and cringe in pain I couldn't help but think of my dad.

Even the dentist seemed to recognize that it wasn't a positive experience as he recommended doing a simple cleaning for the next appointment so that it would be positive instead of capping the tooth and filling the other cavities next as planned.

By the time the whole thing was over I was shaking and felt like I was going to pass out.

I felt sick about how the whole thing had gone, but once the shock had passed I felt especially angry about the way the dentist had used fear to manipulate my son into cooperation.

As parents we all sometimes use threats and rewards and "if, then" statements to get our kids to cooperate. As much as I might not like these methods or I might try to avoid them I still use them. But there was something very different about the way this dentist used an "if, then" statement.

For example I might tell my child "if you don't eat all your dinner, then you can't have dessert." Or I might tell him, "if you hit your sister with that car, the I have to take that car away." In both of these examples I am threatening to with hold something from my child and I am communicating to the child that his good behavior will result in earning the thing that he wants. He wants dessert then he has to work for it by eating his dinner. He wants the toy, then he has to earn the toy by playing with it appropriately.

I don't necessarily think that this is a bad message to give children. It's sort of how life works.

But what the dentist did was to communicate that if my son wanted the comfort and presence of his mommy, then he had to earn it with cooperation. I don't ever want my son to feel that he has to earn my comfort or presence with him when he's scared. Those things are guarantees.

The dentist used fear, really terror, as his main motivational tool and that is definitely something I am not ok with. When I use if, then statements it is never with the intention of motivating out of terror.

Motivating through terror is exactly what bully's do, what terrorists do. This dentist was bullying my child, and because he's in a position of authority as the expert I let him.

I think what I was most upset about was how I handled the whole thing. I failed to stand up to this dentist when he bullied my son. I failed to protect my son. I failed to step in and say, "I am not comfortable with you using terror to manipulate my child. I am not leaving this room. I will not leave my child alone when he is scared and wants my love. If you want my son to cooperate than you need to let me talk to him and calm him down. Or we can go to another dentist."

Instead I froze. And by doing so I communicated to my son that his voice doesn't matter. I communicated to him that it's ok for people in authority to force their will upon you and threaten you with things that scare you in order to gain your cooperation. That is not a message I want to communicate to my child.

His tooth was very infected. It clearly needed to be fixed. Thaddeus needed to cooperate. But I can think of at least ten healthier ways that the dentist could have gained his cooperation as opposed to the very unhealthy way he chose.

We won't be going back to that dentist. And next time my son is bullied like that I will speak up.

Rejoicing in the journey, Bethany

parentingBethany Stedman