Hello world. It’s blog time and this month we’re talking about dentistry for teenagers. You know – that messy time of life where everything is awkward and awesome all at once.

In a lot of ways, being a teenager is like being caught in No-Man’s Land. You’re not a child anymore, but also not an adult. In fact, the very term “adolescent” descends from Latin and literally means “coming to maturity”. With this in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised that this “caught in-between” experience has implications for dental care.

Today, we’re going to dig into this idea and explore how we at Children’s Dentistry of Charlottesville can help solve the unique challenges that teenagers face.

The Transition

In dentistry, just as in life, teenagers are often caught in between. Many pediatric dental offices will refer teenagers out of their care and into a general dentistry setting when he or she transitions to mostly permanent dentition. This means once your baby teeth have been replaced by adult teeth, teenagers are often sent to a regular dentist even though this transition typically occurs between the ages of 12-14 years old. This doesn’t account for the fact that while teenagers have “adult” teeth, they aren’t “adult” people yet. This is a big distinction that often gets overlooked or ignored in the dental field.

Many teenagers aren’t mature enough to tolerate dental appointments because they’re still developing emotionally and psychologically. Remembering that adolescent means “coming to maturity,” we at Children’s Dentistry of Charlottesville have created a home for teenagers and try to meet teenagers where they are at developmentally and emotionally. We fully expect teenagers to still be a little anxious about their dental appointments. After all, teenagers are still kids!

When a regular dental office encounters a teenager who is still anxious for dental appointments, they have very few options for providing comprehensive dental care. They are a fork in the road where either the patient won’t cooperate with the dental team or tolerate any treatment or they have to battle through treatment. Powering through leaves both the patient and the dentist stressed out the whole time, which can lead to potentially subpar work and potentially lifelong dental anxiety. Neither are good options.

Fortunately, there’s a better way! We work with teenagers every day and provide an environment that teenagers tend to be more comfortable in. We have a very understanding dental team, and we also try to be mindful of each patient’s developmental stage and emotional needs. We have our treatment areas set up with televisions so our patients can watch movies. We’ve even been known to let the patient select and play music during dental appointments to help them feel more comfortable. And when we encounter a teenager who can’t tolerate their dental treatment (either due to anxiety, a bad gag reflex, or obstinate behavior) we are able to offer a range of dental sedation and anesthesia options.

Unique Dental Concerns for the Teenager

There are a few dental concerns for teenagers that are somewhat unique to this age group that we need to highlight here.

Sports Injuries

Teenagers who participate in extracurricular activities like sports are at risk for dental injuries. We’ve seen line drives in baseball and softball take a funky bounce and break multiple bones around the teeth and jaw. We’ve also seen bad falls in the driveway on a skateboard, resulting in broken teeth.

Our dental office has 24-hour on-call service for patients of record, so don’t hesitate to call us at (434) 270-0552 if your teen suffers a dental-related sports injury. We’re here to help!

Wisdom Teeth

Teenagers typically develop wisdom teeth on both the upper and lower jaws. In an ideal world, these teeth would grow into position and develop into fully functional teeth, but unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

Wisdom teeth can even be painful or difficult to clean with routine brushing and flossing. Sometimes wisdom teeth can be positioned in such a way that they are actually potential sites for infections because the difficulty they pose to routine hygiene. They can also press against the teeth in front of them, causing them to shift.

When we observe these situations, we may recommend a simple surgery to remove the wisdom teeth so we can prevent larger problems down the road. This is a routine procedure we can be performed in our office with sedation.

If your teen is experiencing any of these issues, please inform your dentist or dental assistant so that we can address your dental problem and help correct it.

Braces/Cosmetic Issues

Another common problem in teenagers is malpositioned (crooked) teeth. Sometimes this is a simple dental problem and can be corrected with braces. Sometimes the root of the problem is skeletal. Either way, cosmetics are important, and we know that a beautiful smile can really be a confident booster for teenagers.

If you’re concerned about the appearance of your teen’s teeth, discuss this at your next dental appointment so that we can help you book an appointment for an orthodontic consultation. We share office space with Dr. G. Joe Rebellato, a nationally recognized orthodontist who has worked as a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Mayo Clinic, and has worked in private practice here for over 15 years. (Side note, he did my wife’s braces, so I can personally vouch for his skills!)

There is one caveat to be aware of with braces: dental hygiene is very important. If your teen doesn’t currently have good hygiene skills, it’s important for him or her to develop good hygiene skills before proceeding with braces treatment. If not, your teen will be at an increased risk of cavity formation during orthodontic treatment.

Developing Good Dental Habits for Teens

As parents know, teenagers are often still developing their personal hygiene habits, and implementing good dental hygiene habits goes hand-in-hand with this stage of development. The maturation process occurring during adolescence and the teenage years will prepare boys and girls to become young men and women. Our goal is to reinforce excellent oral hygiene habits early on so they can become lifelong practices. With that in mind, we spend time with every patient reviewing basic oral hygiene instructions and nutritional counseling.

Indifference and Apathy Toward Oral Health

The biggest challenge we face with teenagers is indifference and apathy. Some teenagers approach their oral health with roughly the same attitude they approach their homework: they couldn’t care less!

When faced with a teenage patient who has an “I don’t care” attitude, our mutual job is to jump into the cheerleader mode. We celebrate every success, even if the only real success is continuing to show up for their dental appointments.

Hopefully over time, as they continue to mature, they will come to appreciate:

  • Their oral health
  • How oral health is related to overall health
  • The role they play in maintaining their own health

In these situations though, the name of the game becomes aggressive prevention. One of the best things we can do for patients that aren’t ready to assume responsibility for their own oral health is to maintain regular dental appointments. It is also “mission critical” for you to set up their diet to avoid the high-risk foods (sugary drinks, junk food, and candy) that cause problems without regular brushing and flossing.

For the patients that are indifferent or apathetic, we will likely recommend restoring cavities early on and also keep the patient on a regular cleaning schedule. We also recommend that parents consider incentivizing oral hygiene habits (brushing/flossing/avoiding sodas) as part of their responsibility for their allowance. Rewards (especially monetary) can be very effective.

Encouraging Good Oral Health with Your Teenager

The biggest influence on an apathetic teenager is to model the appropriate behavior yourself. If you care for you own teeth, it shows your teenage child that this is something they should care about too. Behavior modeling can be tricky with teenagers, as sometimes they want to have very little to do with parents. But this is still a very important and overlooked aspect of your children’s health.

Indifference definitely makes everybody’s jobs harder, but unfortunately it’s a real problem for many teenagers. Just like it’s hard to prevent them from staying up late playing video games or sleeping in until 1PM on the weekends.

This is life with teenagers. It’s messy, figuratively and sometimes literally!

Sometimes we have to pick our battles, but your teen’s health is definitely one of the battles worth fighting. A lackadaisical attitude can be seemingly insurmountable, but committed parents can help. Bring your teenager in for routine check-ups and cleanings and together, we can prevent a lifetime of poor dental health.

Children’s Dentistry of Charlottesville – A Dental Home for Teenagers!

If you have any questions about your teen’s oral health care, feel free to give us a call at (434) 817-1817. We’d love to talk with you more about this transitionary phase of your teenagers care.