Talking to children about sex and relationships

Talking to your children about sex and relationships can feel scary, especially if you have a disabled child. But while it might be tempting to put it off, it’s best to start sooner rather than later. 

Most parents want their children to be well-informed on the subject of sex and relationships [1], and parents of disabled children and young people have a special role in providing support and guidance to enable their children to embrace the challenges of adolescence and grow into informed and confident adults.

Throughout this article we use terms such as 'talk to’ and 'discuss' Not all children are able to communicate verbally, and you will know best how to explain some of these ideas to your child.

Why do we need to talk about sex and relationships? 

There is a tendency to think that disabled people, including those with severe disabilities, do not have sexual feelings, sexual needs and sexual capabilities. But they do. As a parent, you may sometimes feel uncomfortable about this. You may worry that your child will be vulnerable to exploitation, abuse or may become pregnant.

Many parents worry that teaching children about sex will encourage them to become sexually active at a younger age. However, children who have received sound sex education are likely to become sexually active later than their peers. There is strong evidence to suggest that children have better outcomes around sexual health when there is good communication with their parents about sex and relationships [2].

Defining sexuality as wider than just a physical function is particularly important for young disabled people. A person who is not able to use part of his or her body still has an equal right to full sexual expression. Similarly, a disabled young person should have the same access to sex education, sexual health care, and opportunities for socialising and sexual expression as other young people.

Accepting that your child has these sexual feelings, and talking about sex, will help them to understand the difference between a loving relationship and abuse. It may also make it easier for your child to discuss difficult and painful feelings with you. Not knowing and understanding bodily changes and developments can be frightening and bewildering for your child.

Remember that, even without ‘formal’ sex education, your child will still learn about sex and relationships in the playground, from the television, or online, where they may pick up any number of myths, misunderstandings and misconceptions. Avoiding the issue of sex and sex education will not make your child’s sexual development, feelings or desires go away, but it may cause unnecessary confusion and worry.

When should I start talking about sex and relationships with my child?

Sex education in schools is changing to keep up with the way young people form relationships, and you can support your child’s learning by talking to them at home. Think back to your own education – were your school lessons helpful? Did your parents talk to you? Or did you have to learn everything the hard way? What would you like to have learned that you didn’t?

Starting the conversation before your child goes through puberty can take the embarrassment out of the subject, and open the door for future conversations. Children are more likely to want to talk to you about sex if they are used to talking openly to you – not just about their condition in general, but other things like money, school work, friends, and so on. Showing an interest in what your child does and says will boost their self-esteem. Encourage your children to talk to you about anything that worries them. Even children with severe communication difficulties may be able to indicate to a family member who knows them well that there are things they are worried about or which make them unhappy. 

  • Start talking to your child early so that problems are less likely to arise – certainly before puberty.
  • Talk openly and casually – while you’re doing something else, like washing up or driving the car – as this gives the message that it is not something secretive or to be afraid of.
  • Be open about your own beliefs and attitudes, but be prepared to discuss them and listen to your child’s point of view.
  • Read books and leaflets and watch videos to inform yourself.
  • When talking about sex, take your child’s condition into account and be realistic. For example, it might take longer; it might mean experimenting a little.
  • Reinforce the fact that the most important aspects of a relationship are love, friendship and mutual respect.
  • Listen without judgement. Try asking your child what they think.
  • Answer questions and don’t be afraid to say: ‘I really don’t know – let’s look it up together’.
  • Don’t bombard your child with questions or talk too much. Many children say it is awful to get a formal lecture on sex or have questions fired at them: ‘I asked a question and she immediately came back with, “Are you having sex then?”.
  • Try and hold onto your anxieties. Answer their questions and respect their privacy.
  • Remember that disabled people have relationships with other disabled people and with non-disabled people.
  • Remember that same sex relationships are as common for disabled people as for non-disabled people.


As they get older and become more interested in sex, they’ll find it easier to come to you for support as you’ve already shown that you’re available to talk about it. You’ll also feel more confident about answering their questions [3].

“At special school it was terrible. The assumption was that we wouldn’t have and didn’t deserve sexual relationships”.

“I received sex education at home and my disability was not really discussed as an issue. My mum once said to me that she thought it might take me longer than most to get a boyfriend but she was sure I would eventually and she was right!”
 Understanding relationships and sex education
 

Relationships are changing. As young people spend more time interacting online [4] [5], they face new challenges around sex and relationships like sexting, cyberbullying, and the ready availability of online pornography.

The way relationships education is taught in schools is changing too. The switch from SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) to RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) is not just an arbitrary name change – it reflects the importance of learning about sex within the context of understanding how relationships work and how to stay safe.

As well as factual knowledge about sex and sexual health, your child’s education at school may include lessons about:

  • Different types of relationships.
  • How to recognise and understand healthy and unhealthy relationships.
  • Staying safe online.
  • How relationships can affect health and wellbeing [1].

 
RSE lessons at school can be a good opportunity for you to build on what your child is learning by starting your own conversations at home.

 The changing nature of relationships

With the rising costs of living and of higher education, young people face greater challenges to becoming financially independent and are living at home later than previous generations [6]. With reduced funding for social and healthcare services, it may be even harder for disabled young people to access independent living and you may find your children live with you well into adulthood.

Staying at home for longer can put further pressure on young people when they start forming relationships of their own. They will have less private time to spend together during important stages of their relationships and long-distance relationships may become more likely [6].

Access to social media can ease a lot of this pressure, providing positive outlets for social interaction. Being able to chat online can be invaluable to people who are shy or struggle to get out and interact with others. It may make it easier for disabled young people to talk to friends, express themselves, and be creative [5].

Understanding how young people use the internet can help you to be a guiding light in their online lives. While there are risks and vulnerabilities associated with being online, such as cyberbullying and controlling behaviour, social media is usually a positive force in young people’s relationships, allowing them to stay in touch more often than they might otherwise have been able to [7].

By being aware of the benefits as well as the risks, you can put yourself in a better position to support your child’s use of online social networks which may improve their experiences of relationships [5].

So, start young. Talk about the positives as well as the risks. Answer their questions honestly; accept that, like most adults, they will become interested in sex; and give them the knowledge that will help them make smart decisions about relationships.

Further help

If this is a difficult topic for you, you might want to look into the Speakeasy programme and the information provided by the sexual health charity FPA, which aims to increase your knowledge and confidence so that you can develop a more open approach to talking about sex and relationships at home. It is designed to be accessible and considers physical disabilities and learning disabilities in the way it is delivered [8].

You can also read Contact’s in-depth guide for parents on Growing up, sex and relationships. Written with parents and young disabled people, it has information on developing your child’s self-esteem, talking about sex and relationships, sexual development and puberty, contraception and STIs, protection from abuse and more. They also have a guide for young disabled people.

References

[1] Changes to the teaching of Sex and Relationship Education and PSHE A call for evidence - Launch date 19 December 2017. Respond by 12 February 2018 (DfE: London)

[2] Kirby, D. (2008). Increasing communication between parents and their children about sex. British Medical Journal, 337, a206.

[3] Feldman, S.S., and D.A. Rosenthal. (2000). The effect of communication characteristics on family members’ perceptions of parents as sex educators. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 10, 119–50.

[4] Ofcom. (2017). Internet use and attitudes: 2017 Metrics Bulletin. Retrieved from https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/105507/internet-use-attitudes-bulletin-2017.pdf

[5] Frifth, E. (2017). Social media and children’s mental health: a review of the evidence. Education Policy Institute.

[6] Coleman, J. (2010), the Nature of Adolesence. Routledge: London. 

[7] Stonard, K. E., Bowen, E., Walker, K., & Price, S. A. (2015). ‘They’ll Always Find a Way to Get to You’: Technology Use in Adolescent Romantic Relationships and Its Role in Dating Violence and Abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515590787

[8] Kesterton, D, and Coleman, L. (2010). Speakeasy: a UK-wide initiative raising parents' confidence and ability to talk about sex and relationships with their children. Sex Education, 10, 437-448.

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