How to Talk With Your Child With an Intellectual Disability About Puberty

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

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Nothing makes a guardian—or a child—more uncomfortable than "the talk." And when it comes to children labelled as having intellectual disabilities, navigating this sensitive topic is just as challenging. The biggest concern is 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 Your Disabled 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.

Kids with intellectual disabilities 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 their 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, when talking about menstruation, begin with explaining what a pad is and what it is used for. Show them 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 disabled 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, some children have a vulva, outer labia, inner labia, clitoris, urethra, and vagina. Meanwhile, other children have testicles, a scrotum (or scrotal sac), penis, glans, and urethra. Your child may be intersex and have a different mix of features.

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 health issues later in life.

Besides, using appropriate terms can avoid confusion for your child. Consider how confusing it might be to tell a child that a baby is growing in someone's belly compared to telling them that a baby is growing in the parent's uterus. If you use the term belly, they might get confused and think that the parent 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 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. 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 most people's bodies change in ways that are just right for that person. This is also a good time to discuss gender and gender dysphoria.

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 sibling'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 your child has the potential to menstruate, you want to be sure you understand how the school will handle their period. 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 they are unable to change pads on their own.

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

Defend Against Abuse

Children with disabilities are often viewed by perpetrators as easy targets for abuse and subsequently taken advantage of. In fact, of all the various types of abuse that children with disabilities experience, sexual abuse accounts for a significant percentage.

Research shows that children with intellectual disabilities are 4.6 times more likely to experience sexual abuse than their peers. What's more, they are less likely to report it or have their trauma taken seriously. Another study showed that their peers are the most likely perpetrators of sexual assault against people with intellectual disabilities; 99% of perpetrators will be someone the victim knows and who is related to them or assists with caretaking duties.

Parents who openly communicate with their kids can help keep them safe. The key is to stress that their bodies belong to them and to watch for signs of abuse.

One way to illustrate this point is to explain to them bodily autonomy, 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 especially private and to stress that people are not allowed to touch these parts of their body without their explicit permission. You can let them know that 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.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Smith N, Harrell S. Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities: A National Snapshot. Vera Institute of Justice. https://www.vera.org/publications/sexual-abuse-of-children-with-disabilities-a-national-snapshot. Published March 2013.

  2. Tomsa R, Gutu S, Cojocaru D, Gutiérrez-Bermejo B, Flores N, Jenaro C. Prevalence of Sexual Abuse in Adults with Intellectual Disability: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(4):1980. Published 2021 Feb 18. doi:10.3390/ijerph18041980.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.