The state of our children's teeth came under the spotlight in 2015. Amid concerns about diet and education, experts agreed that regular visits to the dentist from an early age are an important factor in preventing childhood tooth decay.

Visiting the dentist can be an anxious time for children and their parents, but for dental professionals it represents a great opportunity. By making the experience positive and unthreatening, it's possible to encourage regular attendance and identify oral health problems early.

Good communication is the foundation of any good relationship with patients. But it is also in the interests of dental professionals to understand their ethical obligations when treating young people. Understanding the dento-legal issues which could arise should help ensure they don't later become a cause for mistrust and conflict.

Capacity and consent

At what age can children give valid consent?

Children in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are deemed legally capable of giving consent for dental treatment at 16.

Children under 16 can also give valid consent, depending on their maturity and the nature of the decision. To meet the criteria for Gillick competence a patient must understand the nature of the proposed treatment, its consequences and the alternatives, be able to retain that information, use it to make a decision and communicate that decision.

For young children and those who are not judged competent, you need to get authority for treatment you believe is in the patient's best interest.

Who can give authority for treatment on a child's behalf?

In the first instance, seek consent from someone with legal parental responsibility. This will usually be the child's birth mother, or father provided they were married to the mother at the time of birth of the child. Divorce or marital separation doesn't affect parental responsibility.

Unmarried fathers have automatic parental responsibility if their name is on the birth certificate of a child born after 15 April 2002 (Northern Ireland), 1 December 2003 (England and Wales) or 4 May 2006 (Scotland).

Parental responsibility can also be held by adoptive parents, those appointed as a legal guardians, those given a residence order or the local authority if the child is subject to a care order. It can also be acquired or removed by a court order.

What if a child is accompanied by a grandparent or child minder?

If you're unable to contact an adult with legal parental responsibility, your overriding consideration should be the best interests of the child. Take into account the nature and possible risks of the proposed treatment, the consequences to the child if untreated and the urgency. If a child is in pain and temporary solution isn't possible, don't delay emergency treatment that is in their best interests. Whatever your decision, note the details of any discussion in the patient's clinical records.

Treatment compliance

Should we treat a struggling child?

In theory, necessary treatment can be provided with parental authority. Even a competent young patient doesn't have an absolute right to refuse treatment if it's in their best interest.

But from a practical and ethical standpoint, it's almost never a good idea to impose treatment or restrain a patient because of the repercussions for the patient's trust and wellbeing, as well as damaging their trust in the dental profession. If the patient can't be persuaded to cooperate and you believe the treatment is needed to safeguard their health, consider a referral to a specialist paediatric dentist who would be better placed to manage the situation.

If a teenage patient fails to comply with treatment, can we inform their parents?

As young patients get older, their trust often relies upon you respecting their autonomy and right to privacy. In most cases, a patient mature enough to attend on their own and consent to treatment should also be independent enough to manage their own dental health.

If you're concerned a patient's behaviour is compromising their health or jeopardising the chances of a positive treatment outcome, discuss this directly with them. Take the opportunity to ask for their permission to involve their parents, especially if they're being asked to foot the bill. However, it would be difficult to justify disclosing information about treatment without consent, and doing so could prove counterproductive.