In today’s fast-paced world, it’s critical for children to learn the facts about sex — before they pick up false or misleading information from other sources. When it comes to teaching kids about sex, many parents feel uncomfortable and unsure of themselves.

If your child has a learning disability (LD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you may be extra cautious about raising the subject of sexuality. Perhaps you’re afraid of overwhelming your child with concepts that are hard to grasp. And if your child is already self-conscious about having a learning disability, you may cringe at the thought of discussing puberty and the changes she’ll experience.

Ann Christen, MFCT, who has 20 years of clinical experience counseling adolescents (many with learning challenges) and their families, offers advice for parents in this situation. So, take a deep breath and read on for her valuable insights and advice!

When to teach your child about sex

In general, Ann Christen recommends parents start teaching girls about sex by the time they’re age 8 or 9 years old, boys when they’re a little older. But “readiness to learn” may vary with the child, especially if she has a learning problem. Look and listen for signs your child wants information. One clue is interest and curiosity expressed by your child (e.g., “Where do babies come from?”). Give her basic information first, understanding you may have to repeat it or rephrase it many times before she fully grasps it. Sex education is an ongoing process. As your child grows and develops, you’ll want to share more information with her. Be alert for signs your child needs more specific details (such as birth control and sexually transmitted diseases). Common signs include:

  • Your child starts showing signs of puberty sooner than expected.
  • You suspect some of her friends are sexually active.

Make it a habit to listen carefully to your child; by “listening between the lines” you’ll hear clues that she wants your guidance. This may be especially true during the preteen and teenage years, when kids may be less likely to ask direct questions. You can expect your child’s questions and concerns to change as she matures. Be prepared to answer her honestly, and always keep the door open for future discussions as needed.

Build on the bond with your child

You and your child may already be in the habit of talking honestly about sensitive subjects such as her learning problem — and the embarrassment and frustration it can cause. If so, your child may consider you an especially trustworthy confidante. That kind of rapport can make talking about sex much easier for both of you.

Showing empathy will make it easier for your child to ask embarrassing questions. Ms. Christen suggests you try to remember what you felt like at your child’s age. Tell her, “I remember wondering about ….feeling like I was the only one who….being scared of….” But no matter how close a bond you share, there may be times your child feels more comfortable turning to someone other than her parents. Consider asking another trusted adult (your child’s aunt, for example) to be available if she to wants to discuss sex.

Be sure to respect your child’s privacy, especially once she reaches puberty. For example, when your daughter has her first menstrual period, don’t announce it to her father and brothers at the dinner table! After reviewing “sex education” materials with her, let her keep them to review on her own.

Setting the stage

Get ready to discuss sex by gathering appropriate resources and reviewing them with your child in mind. You’ll find it helpful to:

  • Locate books or videos that are accurate, engaging, and age-appropriate for your child. (See boxed resources in this article.)
  • If your child receives sex education at school, be sure you preview all materials the school makes available to parents.
  • When possible, plan your presentation in advance. Translate the facts into terms and examples she’ll understand, much as you do when helping her with school assignments.

Consider your child’s learning difficulties

Before talking to your child about sex, you’ll want to consider ways to accommodate her learning difficulties. Questions to consider:

  • Does my child’s emotional and/or social development lag behind her physical development? If so, remember that while she may look like her peers, she may be less interested in — or accepting of — some of the “yucky” aspects of sex.
  • Is my child able to understand abstract concepts? Some kids need information presented in very concrete, literal terms. Be sure to use real words — not cute terminology — when describing sex organs and their function. Be prepared for your kids to ask pointed questions. Ann Christen recalls her 13-year-old twin girls asking, “Mom, how old do you think we should be before we have sex?” Your child may need to be told certain facts repeatedly and require time to absorb the information.
  • What is my child’s preferred learning style? Is she a visual, auditory, or “hands on” learner? Try to find materials that match her preference. Avoid materials that might overwhelm her, such as a book that has too much text and art on each page. But to reinforce information, you’ll want to engage all her senses. For example, you might talk about sex while drawing your own simple pictures to reinforce your explanation.
  • Does my child struggle to pay attention? If she’s easily distracted, be sure to find a quiet setting for your sex education sessions. Have her repeat back what you tell her. But, as Ms. Christen points out, kids with ADHD can hyper-focus when they’re really interested in a subject. So if they’re curious about sex, you’ll have an easier time holding their attention!

Finally, Ms. Christen recommends keeping discussions about bodily changes (such as during puberty) separate from conversations about sexual relations. This approach can maximize learning and minimize “information overload.”

Sexually active teens: reducing the risk

There is much debate — and little conclusive research — about teenagers with learning problems being at greater risk for sexual activity. Fortunately, there are measures parents can take to minimize the risk of their kids becoming sexually active:

  • Be familiar with your child’s friends — and their parents. If you’re concerned about what goes on in a home your child visits, talk with your child.
  • Foster her self-esteem at all times. Help her accept her learning difficulties and celebrate her strengths. Feeling good about herself may help her resist unhealthy peer pressure.
  • If your child has ADHD and is prone to impulsive, risk-taking behavior, provide enough supervision and reinforcement to keep her from seeking gratification through inappropriate relationships.

Relax and trust yourself

When teaching your child about sex, don’t expect to do a perfect job. You’ll likely stumble and fumble at times. Because you have a child with learning problems, you know that parenting involves on-the-job training. So take it all in stride, and trust your ability to educate your child about the facts of life!

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