How To Talk About Sex & Relationships With A Special Needs Child
There is often a lot of anxiety around talking to children with special needs about growing up, relationships and sex. Parents worry their children may be vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. But by teaching your child about sex and relationships you can help keep them safe.
Whether your child has special needs or not, they will still hit puberty and the chances are they will have sexual feelings. Giving them the information they need to understand those feelings and channelling them appropriately is very important.
Sadly, a lot of young people with special needs get negative messages about sex – ‘Don’t do that, it’s not nice!’ ‘Stop touching yourself, that’s bad!’ As your child turns into a young adult, they need sensible information and advice to help them develop positive, healthy attitudes.
19 Tips For Talking About Sexuality & Relationships
The following tips for talking to your child about sexuality and relationships have been contributed to Scope by parents and special needs professionals. We hope they will give you some ideas for handling this sensitive, but important subject.
1. Public & private
Teach the difference between public & private. This can be body parts, places, clothing, behaviors & communication. If you do this at an early age, your child will learn this important difference before puberty.
2. Take it somewhere private
If your child starts to discuss a private activity in public, interrupt or move to a more private area, so you are modelling where to have these sorts of conversations.
3. Appropriate behavior
Talk about what kind of behavior is appropriate in public and in private. For eg, "Is it OK to kiss and hug your boyfriend during a lesson at college?”
4. Body parts
When bathing, label the body part and whether it is public or private. Use anatomically correct names for genitals.
5. Encourage independence
Whenever possible, & from a young age, encourage independence in wiping/cleaning after going to the toilet & when bathing/drying. If your child needs your help, put your hand over theirs while they do the wiping/drying/cleaning. Tell them you are doing this because their body belongs to them.
Teach your child that they ‘own’ their body. Nobody can touch their body without their consent. They choose who they share their body with, and it’s OK to say ‘no’.
7. Peer pressure
Make sure your child understands they don’t need to kiss, cuddle or have sex with someone if they don’t want to. Remind them they are in control of their body.
8. Just say ‘no’!
Talk about consent with your child. Do they feel confident enough to say ‘no’ to being intimate if they are not ready? Practice saying ‘No’ with them, using assertive body language and eye contact.
9. Comfortable & uncomfortable
Talk about 'comfortable' and 'uncomfortable' types of touch. 'When you give me a hug I feel really loved & comfortable.' 'Kicking hurts & I feel unsafe & uncomfortable when it happens.'
10. Touch changes
Talk about how touch can start off feeling comfortable, then can become uncomfortable. For eg 'When you were wrestling with your brother you felt safe until he was rough & then you felt uncomfortable.'
11. Ban 'good'& 'bad'
Link the feeling to 'comfortable' or 'uncomfortable' rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Using 'good' or 'bad' may make the child feel they are bad if they have an uncomfortable feeling.
12. Business touch
We ask people with disabilities to sit quietly and allow their bodies to be touched by strangers a lot ... doctors, therapists, aides, care assistants, etc. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse. Teach about 'business touch' eg 'It is the business of the doctor to touch your foot and help it grow straighter.'
13. Explain what you're doing
Explain to people what you are doing when you have to apply medical ointment/creams to their genitals or clean them when they are soiled. This is an excellent time to talk about private & who can touch, & why the touching is happening.
14. Take it slowly
Don’t bombard your child with a lot of information about sex at once. Be prepared to tell them things again to reinforce the message and help them understand. Make sure you speak to your child at a level they can understand.
15. Keep an open mind
Think about your own feelings, attitudes, values and comfort level related to sexuality issues. Try to maintain an open mind when talking to your child about sexual issues. Try not to react negatively to what they say or do.
16. Get your facts right
Make sure you have correct information before giving it to your child. It’s OK to tell them you’re not sure about an issue and you will find out.
17. Three's company
It can be helpful to ask a friend or support worker to accompany your child on dates in the early stages of a new relationship. They don’t need to sit with them on a romantic date, but could sit in the same cafe reading a book for example, so still be close at hand for support when needed.
18. Keep it to yourself
If your child is going on a date with someone new, make sure they don't divulge personal details, such as address, mobile number, bank or passport details. Talk about the importance of privacy.
19. Hormones and emotions
Be prepared for the emotional turbulence that can come with hormonal changes during puberty. Try your best to be patient and understand that your child may need more alone time.
Emma Sterland helps run the online community at Scope, a national UK-based disability charity, offering support for disabled people and their families. All the tips used in this post were contributed by members of the online community, and can be seen in the tips section of the community .