A Plea for Your Help
Kevin, a 16-year-old teen, was sitting in my dental chair in terrible pain. He had a deep cavity that was hitting his nerve and needed treatment right away.
As a dentist and a mom, I really felt for Kevin. Fortunately, I was able to get him the care he needed to get him out of pain and save his tooth – a risk he didn’t know he had when he arrived.
I knew that the cavity had taken years to get to this point. If he had been seen by a dentist at an earlier stage, it could have been easily treated with a filling before it caused Kevin any pain.
Or even better, it could have been prevented all-together by regular check-ups, cleanings, and fluoride treatments (all of which are painless!). Kevin hadn’t been in for a dental check-up in 4 years. Busy with school, sports, and a part-time job, the to-do of going to the dentist fell away. In talking with his mom, I understood that Kevin didn’t want to come in for his regular check-ups and that the family didn’t understand how important it was — that he could even lose his teeth at his age if he didn’t take care of them. We had a great conversation about how to move forward and restore his oral health.
This experience is not unique to Kevin or my experience as a dentist. As a matter of fact, this is an example of a disturbing trend that we have noticed when it comes to pre-teen and teenagers visiting the dentist. Based on the 2022 Oral Health Needs Assessment for Santa Cruz County, going to the dentist starts to drop sharply once children get to the pre-teen years*.
The percentage of children who access dental services starts strongly with 1- and 2-year-olds, peaks at the ages of 6-9 (at 68%), but then starts to decline sharply in the tween years, going all the way down to only 21% by age 20.
This is unfortunate since most dental services at this age are brief and painless and can prevent a lifetime of problems with your teeth.
The data is clear: we’re doing a great job of bringing our youngest children to the dentist for important preventive visits, but once they get to the pre-teen years, it stops being a priority.
To try and understand why, I’ve talked to patients Kevin and his mom to understand their lived experiences. I’ve talked with mental health professionals to better understand the teenage brain and motivation. And, I’ve considered my experience with my own son, who at 11 years old, strives for independence and autonomy in his decision making.
I’ve concluded that teenagers have busy lives and dental health is just not a priority. Secondly, as they become more independent, they want to have more autonomy in deciding what to do in their free time and let’s face it, visiting the dentist is not the top of their list.
As a dental provider, I want to reach the teenagers where they are. Some of my ideas include social media campaigns about how great a healthy smile looks and feels, bringing dental care onsite to middle and high schools, and engaging the teenagers themselves to get their ideas about what would motivate them to make the time to visit their dentist!
But, I need YOUR help too! I know as a parent, you don’t want to nag your child! But a gentle reminder about the importance of regular dental visits and making those appointments would go a long way!
Maybe give them a choice for when they go? Maybe a lunch with mom or dad afterward as a reward? If nothing else works, maybe tell them about an article you read about a dentist mom begging you to bring your teenager for their dental checkups so they’re not sitting in her chair in pain.
*Data reported is based on Medi-Cal recipients.
By Sepi Taghvaei, DDS, Executive Vice President of Operations, Dientes Community Dental Care Co-chair, Oral Health Access Santa Cruz County.