mom has a huge dental phobia

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Q: From the American mid-west: I’m a 21 year old college student and the issue with my mom has been bugging me for years. My mom has had a dental phobia since she was a kid and hasn’t seen one for herself since. Her oral health is at a very poor state. Sadly, this has embarrassed me.

When we go in public she always looks very awkward and uncomfortable talking and it pains me to see her like this. Over the years I’ve tried talking to her about and showing her articles about gum disease possibly being linked to an increase in cancer and general oral health information. She always ignores this and mentions talk about suicide so I “wont have to worry about the cancer part”. I’ve tried other techniques such as bluffing that I won’t go to a dentist either or, while at the dentist’s office, I try asking a dentist or assistants for information of phobias but no one ever helps and gives me the bureaucratic type sales pitch about stuff I already know like “Well, just tell her to come on in and we’ll fix her up”. If only it were that easy.

The situation is pretty personal because I know anyone would feel rejuvenated if they were to get rid of what ever phobia and have tried googling dental phobias and reading about phobias in print but I can’t find ANYTHING that gives me new information or helps me at all. We’re now entering a tight financial budget thanks to a recession so now my mom and her husband are claiming monetary pitfalls as to why surgery is out of the question and she needs the oral surgery. I feel that she faced and will continue to experience job discrimination because of her oral condition and it really pains me knowing that.

I’ve browsed therapists on sites such as “Psychology Today” but I am very skeptical of the therapist or counselor and that I can’t force my mom to go since I can’t get her into a dentist’s office. I’m running blind looking for help and would GREATLY appreciate help and advice that can help my mom. Thanks!

A: You are right to be concerned about your mom’s health. I appreciate your efforts to get her t0 a dentist. But I suspect your mom knows that her phobia is limiting her is some ways. Her fear of pain in the dentist’s chair is much bigger and more immediate than her worries about cancer in her future or your embarrassment. Scare tactics and lectures therefore won’t help.

What might help is more information about the state of the art in dentistry these days. I’m not an expert on dentistry by any means but I do know from my own experience that dentistry has changed a great deal in the last 40 years. Contact a dentist who advertises “painless dentistry” and get information about what he or she does to make dentistry tolerable for those who are afraid. You can also web search “painless dentistry.” I was amazed at how many sites are dedicated to this issue. Your mom just might respond to a gentle attempt to give her up to date information.

Another approach to the problem is to find a therapist who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy and phobias. If your mom would agree to go, such a therapist can help her manage the phobia through gradual desensitization. This is the same technique that is used, for example, to help someone get over a fear of flying.

After providing her with information, back off. Nobody responds well to pressure, however well-intended.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Jun 2008

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2008). mom has a huge dental phobia. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/06/12/mom-has-a-huge-dental-phobia/