Friday, June 21, 2013

On Toddler Anxiety and Ceiling TVs

I just love this picture, because you need to look twice to see what's going on. At first, it looks really scary: the gloved hands, the draped child lying on her back, the instruments. But then you look closer and you see the Cat in the Hat design on the paper bib, and the sunglasses on the face of the child. Also, notice this: no one is holding her down; her hands and legs are relaxed; she's not crying. Two-year-old Louisa laid still for I'm guessing at least ten minutes (wish I had timed it, but I was too busy picking my jaw off the floor), as she had her teeth cleaned by Dr. Ruby Gelman for the first time.

You should know:

1. This child fights us every single time I or her dad try to brush her upper teeth. The bottoms she submits to, if we're quick, but when it's time to do the uppers, she pulls her lip down in a defensive pose, clenches her teeth shut, and fights us off like a feral creature ("All done! No more! That's it!" she says, turning her face away). The whole process takes no more than half a minute, except for the occasions when I really want to get in there--which means I make her cry. (When she's crying, she opens her mouth. Poor child.)

2. She has historically been nervous at the pediatrician's office. She used to cling to me from the moment the elevator doors opened. We were able to stave off some of her anxiety by doing a lot of pretend doctor play at home prior to her most recent visit. But she's not what you would call relaxed.

3. For her first dentist appointment, I had very low expectations. We were there for her older sisters' check ups and cleanings, and I figured Louisa would get to practice sitting in the chair, and that Dr. Gelman might - might - get her to open her mouth wide enough so she could report to me on the dire effects of our failure to properly brush her upper teeth.

Here's how it actually went down. Louisa was having a ball watching her sisters get their teeth cleaned. She was playing with the teeth-themed toys in the brightly-colored exam room, and was gleefully chewing on the new toothbrush that she'd been given when we first arrived. Half-way through her older sister's cleaning, she said "my turn!" and tried to climb up onto the exam chair. When it finally was her turn to get into the chair, I didn't have to pry her off of me, or get into the chair with her, as I might have predicted--because she couldn't wait. Dr. Gelman cued up an episode of Dora on her magical TV on the ceiling, and the child was in heaven.

Ten minutes (or so) later, I had a toddler with sparkling teeth. And, (phew!) a positive report about the health of those uppers.

Sometimes it's not possible to put kids' comfort first--a child needs to be examined by the doctor or dentist, whether they like it or not, and sometimes it's gonna be scary and sometimes it's gonna hurt. But many other times no one even tries to put the child at ease, because the outcome is more important than the experience of the child. Children are not little grown-ups, and seeing my toddler in a dental exam chair really brought home to me how mysterious this world must be to her. With a little forethought, and a lot of gentleness, a really scary experience can turn into a much more pleasant one.

Now, if only we could play Dora on the ceiling at home...

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