Several years ago, I worked as a Certified Child Life Specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital. My job was to help children and families cope with being in the hospital. A typical day included distracting a child during an IV placement, preparing a teenager for surgery, attending a family meeting to explain a new diagnosis to a child, engaging in therapeutic play with a patient to address a fear of the hospital, and talking to the siblings of a patient in the ICU about what they would see during their initial visit. This experience brought me many things, but it especially provided me with perspective. So, you might imagine that I felt fairly confident in my abilities to help M when she started having difficulty at the dentist. Given my background, I certainly felt like this was something I could tackle and change.
M has visited the dentist 3 times. The first time sent me into pre-term labor. No joke. I was seriously in the hospital that same afternoon with contractions. The second time wasn’t any better. I was determined to change the experience for everyone as her next appointment approached. Everyone in that office had become all too familiar with my child’s “screaming voice.” M was scheduled to have her first set of x-rays this time too. Thus, the preparations began! The hygienist was kind enough to give us some bite wings to practice with, and M giggled when she put them in her mouth so that the special camera could take pictures of her teeth. Check. M and I read The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist during the few weeks leading up to the appointment. We discussed all the tools, the “tickly toothbrush,” how quietly Brother Bear sat in the chair, etc. Check. We played “dentist” with some of her stuffed animals. Check. We bought a “tickly toothbrush” like Dr. Steven’s, and she practiced with it every day. Check. Our sweet dentist and hygienist suggested that I try letting Molly go back by herself this time in the hopes that things might improve without me there. That was humbling. Check. We were ready! Our preparation was complete.
I literally bounded in the door with M that afternoon. I was so confident in all of the preparation she and I had done together. After all, research shows that preparation decreases anxiety and improves coping. I couldn’t wait to see the results of our hard work. M went back happily with the hygienist, and I offhandedly mentioned that should they feel like they were going to need to restrain M in order to complete the cleaning then to please come and get me. “I really don’t think you are going to need to do that though. She is in a really good place this time!” I said. I settled into the waiting room to wrangle the little guy while we waited for M. 10 minutes later the hygienist appeared. I was shocked to see her. She explained to me that the x-rays had gone well, but M was now starting to cry and they were going to have to hold her head still in order to proceed with the cleaning. I scooped up W and headed back to the exam room.
I was able to get M to lay back in the chair, and the hygienist started to clean her teeth. Y’all have never, ever, EVER heard screaming like this. EVER. Piercing screams, dripping sweat, and tears upon tears washed over my child. I leaned across her, held her little hands, and tried to get her to listen to my voice. Hysterical really is an understatement in this situation. She was beside herself, and by that point so was I. I couldn’t understand how after all that work and all that preparation that this was the result. I couldn’t understand how with all of my child life training that I couldn’t make this experience any easier on my child. It might sound dramatic, but I felt like a failure.
I’m sharing this with you because I know you’ve been there. It’s hard to watch your child in distress no matter what the situation. It’s difficult to feel like you’ve done everything you can, and it still wasn’t enough. Those are big feelings even if it’s only about a trip to the dentist. My big lesson from this was that I had to let go. This is not something I would describe as being one of my strengths. However, I had to let go and realize that M will come around to the dentist when she is developmentally, emotionally, and mentally ready no matter what I say or do. At 2, her dentist told me she would love it by 3. After this past visit, he amended that and predicted that they would be best friends by the time she was 5. Regardless, I think I am in it for the long haul when it comes to this experience. So, I’m settling in and remembering that I am still a good mom even if I have the loudest child in the office and that my best really is good enough.
Find the joy-