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Explaining Puberty To Your Child With Special Needs

By Dr. Natasha Alexander 

Your son or daughter with special needs is getting older. You know you need to start preparing them for puberty, but where do you start? How much should you tell them? How much will they understand?

Keep reading. I can help you work out what to tell your child, and how to keep them safe.

What should you tell your child about puberty?

  • Everyone changes from a baby to an adult.
  • Puberty is when a child’s body begins to develop and change as they become an adult.
  • Boys and girls grow pubic hair. Girls develop breasts and they start their periods. Boys develop a deeper voice and begin to look like men.
  • There are things they need to do to keep their bodies safe as they get older.

Everyone changes

You can look at books about puberty together, or use photographs to show your child how they have changed from being a baby to their current age. Puberty is a time for lots of changes.

What the changes are:

  • Their body will change – explain the changes according to your child’s gender and particular needs.
  • Hair will start growing on their body.
  • They may experience different moods – happy sometimes, cranky the next. This is because of hormones.
  • Depending on their age, you may also want to mention that they may start to have pleasant, tingly feelings in their private parts, and that they may want to touch themselves.

Masturbation

  • Don’t just talk to your sons about masturbation or ‘self-pleasure’. Talk to your daughters too. Let them know that this is normal and natural, but that it is something people only do in private.
  • When required, provide a bin with a lid in their bedroom, and a box of tissues. Some boys who do not need support with showering or bathing may prefer to masturbate in the shower or bath, avoiding the need for cleaning up afterwards.
  • Consider the need for some time without wearing continence pads, so that self-pleasure or self-exploration can occur.

Periods

  • Please don’t automatically assume that your daughter won’t be able to cope with her menstrual periods, e.g. because of her fears about blood, or presume that she won’t be able to manage them herself.
  • Many teenagers and women with intellectual or cognitive disabilities are able to manage their periods, either with support or independently
  • Mums – you can let your daughter see you change your pad occasionally, if you are comfortable with this. Explain why you are doing this, and that it is usually a private activity.
  • Look at accessible books about puberty and periods together.
  • If your daughter removes her sanitary pad due to discomfort or intolerance of the feeling of a pad, it may help to use special period underwear that has pads integrated into them e.g. ModiBodi.

Keeping safe

Children with special needs are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than their non-disabled peers, and we need to help them stay safe.

There are things we can do to minimise the risks and to keep them safe. We can equip them with skills and knowledge that will help them to protect themselves.

Knowledge and skills

Please tell your child the correct term for their private parts:

  • Vagina – private parts inside a female body
  • Vulva – what you can see on the outside of a female’s private parts
  • Penis
  • Testicles

Sometimes parents are concerned that informing children of the correct names of their private parts ‘takes away their innocence’, or makes them more vulnerable.

Actually, child abusers are less likely to ‘choose’ children who show knowledge about correct terms. These same children are likely to have been taught about protective behaviours, about safe and unsafe touch, and about the importance of always telling someone if they are touched inappropriately.

Private parts

It is important to teach children no-one should tell them to look at or touch other people’s private parts. No-one should look at or touch their private parts. Helpful touches are different, for example help with personal care, but there are clear rules about this type of touch.

Anything covered by their underwear is private. Their mouths are also private. No one can touch these areas without their consent, or without good reason.

Useful tips

  • Let your child choose how they greet people, e.g. a cuddle, kiss, hug, handshake or high-five. Don’t be worried about offending family members. Your child needs to know they have rights about what they do with their body.
  • Have an open bedroom door policy e.g. when friends or family members come round to play, or sleep over
  • Avoid talking about ‘secrets’ if you can – talk about surprises instead, or let them know that some secrets should never be kept
  • Talk about people they can confide in. Using their hand to count up to 5 people they could tell. They need to ‘yell, and tell, tell, tell’ if something happens to them. Or if they have been told it’s a secret, they still need to tell someone.

There are some books at the end of this article. Remember that these conversations don’t have to be long and heavy. Little occasional chats and reminders are most helpful.


I am a registered clinical psychologist from the UK, now settled in Brisbane with my Australian partner and our two children. I am the founder and director of Consentability, a Brisbane-based service for people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities and their support network in the area of sexuality, relationships, consent and safeguarding. 

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