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Tips for Talking About Puberty and Sexuality with Students with Special Needs

Talking about puberty changes, sex, and sexuality with your child can seem like a daunting task, especially with a child with special needs. However, research has shown that parents and guardians have a profound impact on the sexual health of their children and that open, honest and ongoing communication is vital to their health.

In the classes we teach, we always provide an anonymous question box for students to get answers to their most pressing questions. I find it fascinating to see the types of questions the students ask when given the opportunity to write anonymously. Here are just a few of the questions we’ve received from 4th-6th grade special education students participating in our Puberty Talk program.

  • “Where does the baby come out from?

  • “Why do I feel awkward?"

  • “How do you get the sperm into the female body?”

  • “Does it hurt when you are going through your period?”

  • “What if someone forces you to have sex? What do you do?”

  • “OMG I can’t believe I’m writing this! I keep having erections and it’s really annoying!!”

  • “All my friends are going through puberty. What is the normal age to start puberty?”

  • “Why do the man parts have to go up when you’re having sex?”

  • “I like this girl but I don’t know how to tell her.”

  • “How do people get infections on vaginas and penises?”

  • “My boobs are growing out of control. What do I do?”

  • “How come men don’t become pregnant and how long do the boy and girl have to date each other in order to get married?”

Not surprisingly, these are very similar questions to those we get in our mainstream classes. Perhaps you’ve also received some of these questions from your child. As adults, it’s easy to feel uncomfortable responding to these questions, particularly for young people whose bodies may develop at a different rate than their intellectual development. Here are a few tips to get you started answering your child’s questions.

ENCOURAGE “That’s a really important question.” “I’m glad you asked that.” “That’s a very smart question, I’m glad you’re thinking about these things.” If you need some time to think about the question or it’s a very awkward time (in the middle of a dinner party!), say “I want to make sure we have time to talk about this, so let’s talk about it on the car ride home (or at bedtime tonight).” Stalling or postponing an answer is okay if you follow through quickly.

CONFIRM what the question really is. “I think what you’re asking is…..Do I have that right?”

DETERMINE – is this a question about FACTS, about VALUES (what you think is right or wrong, and why) or an AM I NORMAL? question. Fact questions need simple, straight-forward, often medical answers. For value questions, be sure to share WHY you believe what you do. “Am I normal” questions are looking for reassurance.

ANSWER as best you can. If you don’t know an answer, say “I’m not sure, let’s look that up together.” Follow through quickly by looking at a website or a book together as soon as possible.

AVOID anger, judgment, and assumptions. Work on your poker face! Your words may not be angry or judgmental, but your expression may send the message that you don’t like the question! If a child asks about sex, it does NOT mean that they are sexually active. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they AREN’T. Avoid jumping to conclusions or becoming accusatory. If your child senses your anger, they may not come to you later when they really need help.

CONFIRM that you answered the question - “Does that make sense?” “Did that answer your question?”

ENCOURAGE “I’m really glad we talked about that.” “I always want you to come to me in the future, whenever you have questions, okay?

Below you can find some links to other resources for parents and caregivers. Take some time to think about your own family values, research any medical information you may need brushing up on, and start the conversation!

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