For many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, long-term effects can negatively impact daily life. Feelings of guilt, shame, and depression present challenges to everyday activities – including a visit to the dentist. Dental patients may not feel comfortable disclosing past trauma, but behaviors can alert their dentist or dental health care professional. Once aware, practitioners can respond in a sensitive manner when providing dental care to patients who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, according to The Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA)

Triggers such as body positioning, being touched, and sensitivity to instruments in the mouth can bring back difficult emotions for survivors during treatment. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse can find it difficult to tolerate dental treatment, and may repeatedly cancel dental appointments states an abstract of theNational Library of Medicine National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Treating all dental patients with empathy and understanding can go a long way. If dental care practitioners identify certain behaviors, extra steps can be taken to make patients as comfortable as possible in the practice.

Patient behaviors that can alert the dental team to discomfort

  • Tears
  • Shallow/irregular breathing
  • Extreme startle responses
  • Signs of patient discomfort. Many childhood sexual abuse survivors will endure and try to suppress the pain they’re feeling rather than speak up.

Ways to help survivors of sexual abuse feel safe in the dental chair

At Dental Fear Central, a survivor of childhood abuse shares the following insight:

  • Create a stop sign signal.
    Asking patients to raise a hand when they are uncomfortable or in pain can help them feel in control of their situation and safer in your practice, according to Dental Fear Central.
  • Provide gentle reassurance
    When asked questions, many survivors of abuse will answer with responses they think people want to hear. If a patient chooses one option for treatment, reassure them that they can always change their mind.
  • Create one point of contact.
    When the patient reaches out to the practice, their primary dentist should be the one to respond. Contact with one person at the practice can help the survivor feel most comfortable and return for care.
  • Praise your patient.
    A simple “Great job!” at the end of the visit can go a long way and help reassure the patient that you are not annoyed or irritated with them.

“An understanding of the fears and anxieties this can cause in the dental setting allows the dental team to help the individual cope with the dental experience, improving it for both the patient and the provider. The development of general strategies that foster establishing a positive rapport, sharing control and treating the individual as a partner in the healthcare relationship can cultivate a positive dental experience that can have far reaching effects.”

National Library of Medicine National Center for Biotechnology Information

When dental professionals remain vigilant for signs of a history of abuse, it allows them to make the best decisions for patient care. Not all patients will feel comfortable discussing their past experiences, others may begin a discussion. In that situation, a dentist should listen until the patient is finished speaking, thank them for the trust shown by sharing their story, and ask them how to best help them.


Dougall A, Fiske J. Surviving child sexual abuse: the relevance to dental practice. Dent Update. 2009 Jun;36(5):294-6, 298-300, 303-4. doi: 10.12968/denu.2009.36.5.294. PMID: 19585853.