The other morning, the kids were putting their shoes on, almost ready to head out the door for school, when Amelia noticed something.
Erin was filling out the dry erase board calendar on our refrigerator, putting in appointments and special days for the month. What caught Amelia’s eye was an entry the following week: “Kids’ Dentist Appointment.”
Amelia’s usual upbeat and bubbly mood noticeably sagged as she said with quiet dread, “Wait. Do we have a dentist’s appointment next week?”
This is one of those moments where, as a parent, I must cope with the fact that my daughter is now old enough to not only read, but understand the marking and passage of time, as well as many more extremely advanced concepts. This knowledge is amazing and wonderful, but in moments like this, it is also problematic and annoying.
Both our kids have always been super nervous about doctor’s appointments of any kind. And look, I get it. Sometimes going to the doctor means getting a shot, which I can say both my children are VERY opposed to. And in Amelia’s case, I can also understand the dentist anxiety because when she was little the poor girl had some issues with weak enamel and she had to have a pretty intensive corrective procedure done. We understand the worry around these types of appointments, and of course always assure them that everything is going to be fine. But our usual approach is to wait until the last possible minute to mention we’re going so it doesn’t become a fixated object of worry for days or weeks ahead of time.
Full disclosure, I do not hold any of this against either of my kids, becasue sadly their old man is not much better. Particularly where dentist visits are concerned, I will find literally any excuse I can to reschedule my appointments.
“Hi, this is Jim and I have an appointment Friday? I just realized that Friday is Arbor Day, so I’m going to need to reschedule. Oh, you’re booked up for three months? Perfect, let’s just make it four months to be safe.”
So it was from a place of true understanding that I joined with my wife in saying, “Amelia, we understand, but seriously, it is nothing to be nervous about. It is just a cleaning and everything is going to be OK.”
I could tell she tried to take it to heart. We reminded her of how great her dentist is, and oh my god, her dentist is incredible. I don’t know about anyone reading this, but my childhood memories of dentist appointments was lots of judgement and guilt trips. Amelia and Henry go to a pediatric dentist that is perhaps the most positive and outwardly happy human being I’ve ever met. They have old arcade games in the waiting area, movies playing and fun stuff all over the walls. A dentist visit for my kids involves lots of jokes, smiles and a prize bucket at the end. Oh, would that my dental experiences as a kid would have been so whimsical.
But still, Amelia does have anxiety about these kinds of things and I completely respect that. Erin and I both took a moment to talk to her about it and ask how she was feeling. We asked what she is afraid of. She told us she is afraid of getting a cavity. So we drilled down (pun intended…sorry) further to learn more.
“Why are you afraid of having a cavity?”
She wasn’t exactly sure. We explained to her that she brushes and flosses every day, and part of the reason we see the dentist regularly is to prevent cavities from happening. Still, she was a bit concerned. We asked if she would be ashamed if she had a cavity, and she wasn’t sure. We both explained that hey, sometimes you can do all the right stuff and a cavity still happens. I have a few, so does Erin. It’s nothing to feel bad about. Amelia seemed to take that in. I told her, “You know what? You probably won’t have a cavity, but if you do, OK. You have a cavity. They’ll fix it and it’s perfectly fine.”
Amelia nodded and thought about that, and by now it was time to head out to school. I drove the kids and we talked a little more in the car. Even Henry got in on the act, offering reassurance to his sister that the dentist is really nice and you get prizes!
Moments like this I think a lot about my own anxiety and try to share with Amelia that yes, her dad also worries about things sometimes. I understand how overwhelming it can feel. I fully admit that I will see something on the calendar or some upcoming challenge and it will take significant effort to not have that thing totally dominate my thoughts for the days and weeks leading up.
I do not want this for my daughter, and it is my hope that by being totally open with my own experience with anxiety, she will also understand that it’s a normal human things to sometimes have these fearful feelings, but also that they are in fact feelings and not necessarily tied to anything real. Just because we are anxious about something doesn’t mean that anything bad is going to happen. In the end, anxiety is our mind’s creative section being a jerk and inventing scenarios to make us think that terrible things are ahead.
I went through the exercise again with Amelia, saying that hey, I understand if you’re afraid of getting a cavity. But if you do, so what? Let’s think into that. Everyone gets them. You did your best taking care of your teeth, and if one snuck by, it’s OK. When I dropped her off, she seemed to be processing that idea.
I spent a lot of the day thinking about Amelia and feeling a little sad about the fact that she faces some of these same anxious tendencies as I do. No parent wants to see their child have the same challenges they do, but this is one of those areas where we identified early that she has some anxiety and have gotten her support in that area. She has come a long way already, but of course we all have our moments of difficulty.
I thought a lot about my own work with anxiety over the years, and my own efforts to lean in to whatever the fear is and really ask the question, “OK, if this happens, will it be the end of the world?” Often, it turns out it isn’t, and furthermore, spending time in that space can often be really helpful in seeing that the mind can really create some nutty and unrealistic scenarios. Anxiety is imaginative perception, nothing more. Our minds invent the fearful scenarios that scare us, even if they are highly unlikely or extremely exaggerated. Like the fact that, for me, as a child I worried that my tiny town of like 2000 people in rural Wisconsin would be the target of Russian ICBMs. That turned out to be a somewhat unfounded concern.
After school, Amelia seemed to have forgotten all about the dentist thing, and I considered to be a big step forward. In the past, once her mind latched onto something like that, she’d keep coming back to it, but in this case our strong little girl seemed to move through it pretty well. What really impressed me, though, was later in the evening when we were in the kitchen in eyeshot of the calendar and she did bring it up.
“Dad, you know what?” Amelia said. “I don’t care if I do get a cavity.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah, really,” she said. “If I get a cavity, oh well! They’ll put some numbing stuff on and give me a filling and it will be OK.”
What’s hard to communicate in writing here is that she said this was utter calm and collected confidence. I always remember being in film school decades ago and my acting professor would scream at people performing and say, “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!”
Thing was, I believed Amelia. She wasn’t acting, she had really taken hold of this concept. And I was inspired by it.
I do my best to teach my daughter these things in hopes that she isn’t hobbled by the same issues that have challenged me, lo these many years. I worry about things all the time. I’ve come a long, long way in dealing with my anxiety, sure. I don’t get sucked into the deep pits I used to, but do I still find myself needless fretting about things all the time? Absolutely.
But Amelia’s strength and confidence in this made me start going through my own worry file and asking the same questions. I started thinking to myself, following my daughter’s cues, “You know, I don’t care if this thing happens. So what? We’ll move on and will be OK.
In trying to teach my daughter something about dealing with anxiety, she once again wound up being the one teaching me. I’m going to think of her confident attitude in that moment the next time I go down the path of worrying about something. And truth be told, I ALSO have a dentist’s appointment this month, so I guess I’ll need to be putting that into practice sooner rather than later.
Oh, but hold on…my dentist’s appointment is on National Straw Hat Day. Guess I’ll have to call and reschedule.