Taking a Breath

Alexander Frisbie, DMD

I came to the office today coffee’d up and ready to roll, but throughout the morning my momentum quickly lost steam.

I spent five minutes pleading with an apathetic teenager who just can’t seem to find the energy to brush his teeth well enough to avoid debonding from the orthodontist.

After that, I spoke with a young mother who nodded politely but didn’t listen to a word I said because she was holding a screaming infant while trying to stop her toddler from stomping on the rheostat.

A little later I got a bit of a heartache doing a filling for a six-year-old who was crying but cooperative. Even though I’m confident he wasn’t in pain, I remember what being a nervous kid is like and ruining a kid’s day never feels good. Still, he was easier to deal with than his sister who I’m pretty sure has learned to cry because it makes adults do what she wants.

Lets face it: treating kids in the dental office isn’t easy. It can be exhausting for everyone involved and requires more than a little patience. But nothing wears me down as much as a child who’s suffering from what should be preventable dental problems. I admit I have a hard time avoiding judgement when I hear “they brush their teeth when they’re at my house…” or “she never wants to drink anything but soda.” Sometimes I even feel anger when I see a six- or seven-year-old with rampant decay or dental abscesses. Every now and then my anger is justified, and on rare occasions the lack of care kids get is more criminal (we are reminded biennially of our duty to report this).

But usually my knee-jerk judgement is due to the naiveté of not having children of my own and because I was fortunate to be born to parents who prioritized dental health. After taking a breath, I remember that my patients’ parents are human. One of the more humbling experiences in my young career was when I confronted a mother about significant decay in her child’s teeth that had gone untreated and I learned that she was dealing with a terminal illness and frankly dental appointments had been put on the back burner.

Criminal negligence aside, the cycle of poor dental health in families is almost always due to lack of understanding. You can bet that every dad who rolls his eyes when you say this baby tooth needs a pulpotomy and crown didn’t have the option to keep his when he was a boy. It can be so exhausting to have the same discussion ten times per day, but remember that what seems like common sense to us, a parent may be hearing for the first time. Our responsibility is to examine without judgement and offer some of the education we took years to learn.

Regardless of the degree to which you offer pediatric services, most general dentists need to have a relationship with our youngest patients. In my opinion, a family dentist is first and foremost a guide. Parents who trust you to care for their own teeth are going to want to hear what you have to say about their children. Even if it feels like a waste of breath, a few extra minutes of talking in the hallway can be enough to convince a parent that one soda per day is a lot for a middle schooler.

If you refer every kiddo you meet to a pediatric or orthodontic specialist, quarterbacking this for a parent still requires good judgement and trust. And if you treat a lot of kids in house, you probably know that a good listener with patience can redirect a lifetime of dental anxiety.

The older I get, the more I appreciate how fortunate I was to have parents who gave us the gift of oral health and a family dentist who never allowed me to think that a dentist was anything but gentle, knowledgeable, and hilarious. I’m already chalking up the first few gray hairs I find to pediatric appointments, but when things go well kids are some of my favorite patients.