Do you need some pointers when it comes to talking to your child about sex and relationships? Mel Gadd shares her top tips for parents of children with additional needs.
It can be hard to know how to talk to your kids about sex or relationships.
But just like the many other areas where you help prepare your children for growing up – like teaching them how to dress themselves or manage their pocket money – it ultimately comes down to making sure they have the information and life skills they need to be happy and healthy.
Parents of children with a disability or additional needs can face unique challenges when it comes to supporting their children around relationships or sex. But despite that, most of the basic principles are the same for all parents: having clear and open communication, using good resources, and not making assumptions.
Top tips for talking about sex and relationships
Here are my top ten tips for parents of children with a disability or additional needs, who’d like to help their children around sex or relationships:
- Don’t assume your child won’t become sexual. If your child has a learning disability, that might mean their learning age is lower than other children their age. But it doesn’t mean that their hormones, and therefore their sexual development, won’t develop at the same rate. Having a disability, or additional needs doesn’t stop you from being a sexual being and having sexual interests and rights.
- Use accurate terms. You might have other names for genitals that you use in your house, but make sure you teach your children the accurate terms as well. Making sure your child knows what their vulva (external female genitals), vagina (internal tube), or penis are, helps teach them there’s no need to feel shame about their bodies, and later on means they can explain medical problems to a health professional clearly. Understanding about their bodies and being able to talk about them can also help protect them against sexual abuse, or mean they are able to talk about it if they have any worries.
- Use language they’ll understand. As adults, we have a whole raft of euphemisms for sexual terms, either to avoid embarrassment or just for amusement’s sake. But these can be understandably confusing for children, and especially children with a learning disability. Make sure you use clear language – for example ‘have sex with’ instead of ‘go to bed with’ – and if in doubt check whether your child understands.
- Don’t make assumptions about your child’s sexuality. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming things about your child’s sexuality. But they might be gay, straight, or interested in more than one gender. Try to keep this in mind when talking about sex or relationships from an early age. This will help make sure that what you’re saying is relevant for them, and show them they don’t have to hide anything from you or avoid coming to you if they need your help or advice.
- Work in partnership with your child’s teachers. If your child is at a school, ask the school what they’re teaching about growing up, puberty, relationships and sex at each stage, so you’re able to reinforce those subjects at home. If they’re not teaching anything, you can ask them why not. You also have a right to see the school’s relationships and sex education (RSE) policy.
- Help them be safe online. The internet can be a great place for young people to connect with others who share their interests, and it can be especially useful for many young people who have a disability, or additional needs. Being able to communicate online, for example through online games, can provide access to a social life that might be more difficult to navigate in person. But it’s important to talk with your child about staying safe online. The NSPCC has some useful tips for this. Also, MFON has information on staying safe online.
- Be clear on consent. If you think your child might be thinking about starting to have sexual relationships, make sure they understand what consent looks like – both for other people and themselves – and that anyone can change their mind or say no at any point if they’re not completely happy with what’s happening. It’s also good to be clear about boundaries and having sex (or masturbating) in private places.
- Check they know how to have safer sex. The stigma faced by people with disabilities or additional needs can mean they’re assumed to be less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy or get a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The reality is that people with a disability can actually be more likely to experience poor sexual health. So make sure your child knows how to have safer sex that will help protect them.
- Respect their right to make mistakes. When it comes to romance, relationships and sex, most of us make a few mistakes, especially when we’re young. But those moments can help us learn what we do and don’t want, and what we’ll do differently in future. You might have an understandable urge to protect your child from ever experiencing something they’ll regret, but try and remember that young people with a disability or additional needs have the same right as anyone else to make mistakes. It’s important to allow your child to have the opportunity to have good learning experiences.
- Make the most of great resources. There are lots of very useful resources out there, both for you and your child. Here are a few examples, but find the ones that work best for you and your family’s needs.
The National Autistic Society has great resources for parents.
FPA’s Talking together…about sex and relationships, is a practical guide for parents of children with learning disabilities.
All About Us is an award-winning DVD that can help the personal development and knowledge of people with learning disabilities around sex, sexuality and relationships.
FPA’s Speakeasy course helps parents and carers feel more confident discussing sex, relationships and growing up with their children. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to see if there’s a group in your area.
Mel Gadd is Project Co-ordinator for FPA’s relationships and sex education project Jiwsi, working with vulnerable young people in north Wales, many of whom have disabilities or additional needs.