Discussing Puberty and Sexuality
As a parent or caregiver, it can be difficult to think of your child with an intellectual disability as a sexual being. However, as your child ages chronologically, he or she will go through puberty and may experience sexual feelings. Teaching your child about their changing body and sexuality — including intimacy, positive relationships, peer pressure, body image and responsibility — is an important step in helping him or her stay healthy and safe.
Start talking with your children about sexuality while they are very young. All children will go through puberty changes and experience sexual feelings as they age chronologically. Talking with your child regularly as opportunities permit will help them prepare for those changes. The younger you begin to discuss/teach healthy sexuality, the more effective it will be.
Your support will also help your child better navigate physical development and changes, and better understand the importance of hygiene, privacy, and personal boundaries.
In addition, having frequent and honest discussions with your child about puberty before it happens, and sexuality, is an important way to help protect your child. Youth with intellectual disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual abuse. By talking openly with your child over time you will help equip him or her with the tools to help protect against abuse.
Before You Talk to Your Child
Before you start a conversation with your child, you may want to consult with a health care professional who is knowledgeable about your child’s abilities and limitations. They may be able to help you sort out what and how much information will be beneficial for your child. The resources section of the web page offers some good information. In addition, it’s good to prepare for this discussion by understanding:
- Timing – You know the times of day when your child is most receptive to conversation, such as when you are driving on errands or having breakfast. Plan talks for the times when you know your child is most receptive.
- Communication Style – You also know the best communication strategies for your child. Some children respond well to word games, others to role play.
- Your Boundaries - Before you start a conversation with your child, make sure you know your own values and beliefs. Also, be ready to assert your personal privacy boundaries regarding what you will or will not share about yourself.
- Outside Influences - Before discussing puberty and sexuality with your child, it is important to understand the outside influences and sources of information your child is exposed to that may be detrimental to your child’s understanding of healthy sexuality. These influences can include:
- Sexually exploitative situations or pictures
- Movies or television with sexually explicit content
It is difficult for the child with an intellectual disability to understand that sexualized media does not describe real life interactions that should include the elements of intimacy, closeness, and romantic love.
What to Say
- Use accurate language - Use accurate language for body parts and bodily functions and teach your child to use the correct terms for their own body parts.
- Probe for knowledge – Start by asking what your child already knows about physical differences between boys and girls.
- Relationship differences – Teach your child about how boundaries can be different with different people. For example, a hug is an appropriate way to greet a family member, but a handshake is a better way to greet a stranger.
- Personal boundaries – Help your child understand that his or her body is their own and they have the right to tell others to not touch them. As much as possible, encourage independent bathing, toileting, and taking care of personal hygiene needs. Explain how to show respect for personal boundaries - knock on closed doors, wear a robe outside of the bath or bedroom– and model that behavior.
- Communication boundaries – Explain that asking questions about sex is a good thing, but should be done with only certain people and during certain times. For example, questions can be asked to parents, doctors, or nurses in a private setting, but should not be asked of friends on the playground.
How to Say It
- Teachable moments – Look for and use teachable moments that happen in daily life. For example, talk about a neighbor’s new pregnancy or a friend’s upcoming marriage.
- Visual aids and role playing - Use photos, pictures, and other visual materials as often as possible. Showing family photos may help your child to understand different types of families and relationships. Role playing can also help reinforce what to do in different situations.
- Repetition - Be willing to repeat information over time. Don’t be impatient or expect your child to remember everything you said or to have entirely understood it.
- Remain open and honest – Your child should have questions, and those questions can come when you least expect them. If the timing is not appropriate to answer your child’s question, explain that you will do so at a specific time. If your child asks a question you don’t know the answer to, say so. Say you will find the answer and then follow through.
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings – Acknowledge that to ask a question about sexuality or puberty is a brave thing and that you are glad to be able to talk about it with him or her.
- Reinforce lessons – As your child continues to mature, have discussions about the values that surround sexuality, including intimacy, self-esteem, and respect.