How to Talk With Your Special Needs Child About Puberty

Mom and special needs son holding hands with their foreheads pressed together

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Nothing makes a parent—or a child—more uncomfortable than "the talk." And when it comes to special needs children, navigating this sensitive topic is just as challenging. The biggest concern is often that they will not understand what is happening to their bodies. But with your help and planning, this does not have to be the case.

Tips for Talking About Puberty With a Special Needs Child

Here are some tips to help you navigate the conversations you will have as their bodies change.

Start the Conversation Early

While having conversations about puberty can seem overwhelming at times, you need to be sure you are having them sooner rather than later. Do not wait until your child is in the throes of teenage hormones and body changes to start having conversations about puberty.

Special needs kids will need more information than the school's health video can provide. So, set aside some time now to talk. You do not want their peers to be the primary source of information. Pick a quiet place free of distraction and start out slow.

One way to open the conversation is to ask what your child already knows. This information will be a good starting point for the conversation. For instance, your child may already have a grasp on anatomy and reproduction from health or science class. As a result, you can use this knowledge and build from there. There is no need to start from scratch.

Break It Down

Just like anything else that you would teach your children, break it down for them. In other words, do not try to tell them everything there is to know about puberty and sexuality all at once.

For instance, if your special needs child is a girl, talk to her about menstruation. Begin with explaining what a pad is and what it is used for. Show her how it is used and how it should be disposed of. Later, talk about cramps and PMS. Present everything in a clear and concrete way and do not try to provide too much information at once.

It also is helpful to go over the five stages of puberty. These five stages include changes in height, voice, skin condition, and mood. Stress that not everything happens at once, but that these changes instead occur over a period of almost ten years.

Additionally, you may need to come to the subject multiple times during that time period. It is not uncommon for special needs kids to become unsettled every time they notice a change in their body. Reassure them that everyone experiences what they are going through. 

Use Appropriate Terms

From the very beginning, be sure you are using scientific terminology for body parts and functions. Do not shy away from using the correct terms.

For example, girls have a vulva, outer labia, inner labia, clitoris, urethra, and vagina. Meanwhile, boys have testicles, a scrotum (or scrotal sac), penis, glans, and urethra.

It is not uncommon for adults to feel some embarrassment in using these terms with their kids, but it is very important that young people grasp what these terms represent if they can. Knowing them can make it much easier for them to identify medical issues later in life.

Besides, using appropriate terms can avoid confusion for your special needs child. Consider how confusing it might be to tell special needs kids that a baby is growing in someone's belly compared to telling them that a baby is growing in the mother's uterus. If you use the term belly, they might get confused and think that the mother ate the baby. Or, they might wonder how the baby got into someone's belly in the first place.

Do not let your discomfort with the subject keep you from being transparent with your special needs child. Be honest and open in your communication and do not hide things.

Stress That It's Normal

When a child's body is changing rapidly, such as growing hair in places where none existed before, this can be scary and confusing for some children. As a result, it is very important that you stress that the changes they are experiencing are completely normal and that everyone goes through them. You also can talk about the fact that everyone's body changes in ways that are just right for that person.

For instance, some people get really tall while others remain shorter in stature. Other people might grow a lot of hair while others will have smaller amounts. Pointing out differences will provide some comfort in knowing that they do not have to be exactly like everyone else. It also demonstrates that there is nothing weird about what they are experiencing.

Find Teachable Moments

Use examples from everyday life to discuss the topic of puberty and sexuality. For instance, you can talk about your sister's pregnancy or a cousin's wedding to tie in why people go through puberty.

Real-life examples help them make sense of what they are experiencing and what that means for when they become an adult.

You also can try reading books together about puberty, body care, and reproduction. And, don't forget to tie in the importance of good hygiene, like showering regularly, using deodorant, and washing their face. These important life skills are also tied to talks about puberty and their changing body.

Research Your School's Policies

If you have a daughter, you want to be sure you understand how the school will handle a special needs student who is menstruating. For instance, many schools will not help them change pads or even enter the bathroom with them. As a result, you will need to have a plan in place for your student, especially if she is unable to change pads on her own.

Discuss with your student's teachers and aids how they normally handle these situations and together devise a plan that everyone is comfortable with, including your child.

Defend Against Abuse

Children with special needs are often viewed by perpetrators as easy targets for abuse. In fact, of all the various types of abuse that children with disabilities experience, a significant percentage of them will experience sexual abuse.

In fact, research shows that more than 40 percent of special needs children are impacted. What's more, reports indicate that kids with special needs are 3.4 times more likely to experience abuse than their peers. Meanwhile, other studies suggest that 68 percent of girls with developmental disabilities and 30 percent of boys will be sexually abused before age 18.

Parents who openly communicate with their kids can help keep them safe. The key is to stress that their bodies belong to them.

One way to illustrate this point is to explain that they always have a choice about sharing affection with another person. As a result, remind them that they are always allowed to say no if they do not want to hug or kiss someone goodbye—even Grandma.

It's also important to point out, using appropriate terms, what body parts are private and to stress that people are not allowed to touch these parts of their body without permission. In other words, private body parts are usually covered by underwear, bras, or swimsuits.

It's also a good idea to make a list of trustworthy adults that they can go to if someone touches these body parts or does anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. Stress that no one will be angry at your child for telling the truth.

Be Available for Follow-Up Questions

After your conversation, your child may have additional questions, concerns, or simply want a more thorough explanation. At the end of your conversation, stress that you are always available to talk more.

Emphasize that no question is out of bounds. In other words, make sure they know that they can come to you with anything—that nothing will embarrass you. Also, let them know that if you do not immediately know the answer that you will find it together. The key is to keep the lines of communication open and to let them know that you will love them no matter what they bring up. No question is out of bounds.

Repeat as Needed With Patience

Keep in mind that a lot of the things you discuss the first time may not stick with your child. So, it is important to have conversations about puberty and sexuality on a regular basis. In fact, every time they witnessed a slight change in their body, you may have to start at the beginning and have the conversation about puberty all over again.

Remember to be patient throughout the process. It may take time for your child to understand what is happening. Also, depending on their disability, it also may take time to accept the changes that are taking place. The key is to be there and to be open to talking as often as they want to. 

A Word From Verywell

Understanding sexuality and creating body awareness is very important for teens and young adults with cognitive disabilities. As a result, when it comes to puberty and what is happening to the body, parents should strive to be their child's number one source of information.

With honesty and patience, eventually, they will come to accept the changes taking place in their bodies.

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