Adolescence isn’t a cake walk for either the parents or the children going through it and it can be doubly challenging for children with special needs. Children with physical disabilities can have logistic problems, while those with cognitive impairments might not be aware of the changes happening to their body resulting in fear and panic. But by starting early, parents can tackle this tricky situation and make it easier for them and their children.
Common Challenges of Puberty in Special Needs Children
- Making them aware of what’s happening to them and reassuring them
- Teaching them to take care for their developing bodies
- Comforting them through their adolescent emotional outbursts
- Protecting them from abuse
- Encouraging a safe and happy social life
The main thing for parents to remember here is to start the conversation on sex and reproduction, early in life. While this is advised for all parents, it is more important for parents of special needs children, since constant repetition might be necessary for them to truly understand what’s going on.
Tips to Discuss Puberty and Sex with a Special Needs Child
Use the right words.
All sex education experts stress on using the right words for reproductive organs, rather than using nicknames that can confuse the child. If this is uncomfortable for you, you can use your doctor’s help and teach your child the right words for each body part, like vagina and penis, rather than hoo hoo or wee wee. This needs to be done right from toddler-hood, so that by puberty, your child is familiar with the terms, and the conversation is easier for you.
Use books and pictures.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and this couldn’t be truer in case of a special needs child. This also eases a parent’s own discomfort and gives a starting point to talk. There is a book series ‘Special Girls’ Business’ and it’s male counterpart ‘Special Boys’ Business’ which has special books dedicated to puberty for special needs girls and boys. Books like these are very helpful in giving confused parents a much-needed footing.
A special needs child is not going to understand everything you say about puberty in one go, so this needs to be a continuous conversation lasting for years. Starting early gives you an advantage of time; so by puberty, all that repetition will have had its effect, and your child will be more confident to handle all the new changes. A good idea is to use life events as an opportunity to discuss things, like when someone is getting married or having a baby.
Be frank and confident.
A child with disabilities is likely to be scared at the way his body and thoughts are changing, and the last thing he needs is a parent who’s afraid or uncomfortable. Be open, calm and confident when talking to your child so that your behavior reflects on him. Use the right words, just the way you’ve taught him and explain things in a matter-of-fact way, without making a show of it. You might have to practice in private first!
Include lessons about safety.
The statistics about abuse of special children are not good. Around 40% of boys and nearly 70% of girls are sexually abused, and only 3% of the culprits are ever caught. Children with disabilities are considered easy targets by predators, so ensuring their safety is of the highest priority. Use the Circles Teaching Method or something similar to teach them about good and bad touch as well as about private parts. Give them the freedom to say no to a hug if they don’t like it; they’ll learn to assert themselves in similar situations.
Tips to Ensure a Smooth Sailing Adolescence for a Special Needs Child
- Like we said earlier, ensure your child is safe and with someone you trust, at all times. Be aware of her route to school and back and other places she goes to play.
- When the time comes, talk to your child’s teachers so that they are aware of what your child is going through. They are most probably trained to handle such situations, so they can help.
- Encourage good hygiene early on. Puberty brings about a lot of changes for both boys and girls, and hygiene becomes more important than it previously was. By instilling a basic ritual early in life, it becomes easier to make minor adjustments later. For girls, keep an extra sanitary pad in their bag at all times, so that they are not caught unawares.
- Ensure some private space at home. Your child should learn about privacy and what he can do in private and what is allowed in public. Give him some space of his own at home so that he understands the concept.
- Adolescence brings with it a roller coaster of emotions. Adolescents start noticing the opposite sex, but a child with special needs might not understand this feeling to be what it is. Help him get over this awkwardness by talking about it.
- Make sure your child isn’t lonely. People with special needs are more prone to depression than others, so a good, active social life is necessary. Let her hang out with people her age and bond with them at social events or family functions.
- At all times, make sure to carry on with regular doctor visits. It’s a good idea to have a talk with him around the time of your child’s adolescence, since he’s better informed about any particular health challenges.
Adolescence in special needs children doesn’t have to be feared and avoided. Prepare the ground right from toddler-hood, so that an open channel of communication is created. This way, your child will come to you with his questions right from the start without relying on half-baked information from others.