Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

What Makes It Hard to Talk about Sexuality?

(For Parents of Children with Developmental Disabilities)

For most parents, it’s not an easy thing to talk with their child about sexuality – even when the child doesn’t have a disability. Why do you think that’s so? Here are some of the reasons we’ve come up with:

    • Your parents never talked to you about sexuality, so you have no positive role models.
    • You’re embarrassed by the subject matter.
    • You’re uncomfortable saying sexual words and phrases out loud.
    • You’re overwhelmed by the thought that children are growing up in a very different world than the one you grew up in.
    • You’re afraid you don't know all the answers. To which we respond: "That’s a good thing. It shows your child that you’re still learning about this subject too. What a powerful message."
    • You’re worried about telling “too much.” Most parents worry that if they tell their children about sex that their children will go out and try sex. The opposite is true. All of the research shows that when parents talk openly and honestly with their children about sex, children are more likely to postpone sexual activity. When parents don’t talk about it, children have to find out about it on their own. This leads to early experimentation. Remember, giving information is not giving permission. It may also be helpful to remember that teaching children about sexuality is like teaching children about any other subject. Can you teach a child too much math? No, what they don’t understand will simply go over their heads. It’s the same when you teach human sexuality.
    • And finally… you’re not even sure your child needs to know about these things. First of all, you should know that most teens and adults with developmental disabilities want to be in romantic relationships. The problem is that many of you probably view the outside world as a risky place for your child – a place where your child can never be an equal partner in a sexual relationship. And so you may be tempted to supervise every moment your child is out of the house. You may not allow your child to make friends and you certainly won’t let them date. If you choose this route you will be exposing your child to a life full of loneliness. And denying children the right to lives of love, friendship, and intimacy leads directly to a situation in which adults with disabilities are so starved for affection that they are easily victimized.

Values and Attitudes

Parents have vastly differing opinions as to what is acceptable sexual behavior for people with developmental disabilities. Which means that you should be aware of your own values and attitudes before you start talking with your child about sexuality.

Consider the following questions:

Is it okay for people with developmental disabilities to masturbate?
Is it okay for people with developmental disabilities to date?
Is it okay for people with developmental disabilities to have sex?
Is it okay for people with developmental disabilities to get married or be in a long-term relationship?
Is it okay for people with developmental disabilities to have children?

Would all parents answer the same way? Of course not, and why? Because your answers are based, in part, on your values and attitudes, and you all have different values and attitudes.

And that's where the problem lies. How do your values and attitudes affect your ability to talk with your child about sexuality?

    • You may not present all sides to an issue. Without this knowledge, your child may develop their own values in a vacuum of ignorance.
    • You may discourage your child from acting on legitimate sexual feelings. This may lead to increased feelings of loneliness and despair.
    • You may be inadvertently encouraging self-hatred if your child feels guilty about the behaviors they are engaging in.
    • You may present opinion as fact.
    • You may confuse your child by giving non-verbal messages that don't agree with the ones you have to pay lip-service to.
    • You may lose the respect of your child if they realize that you're not leveling with them. They may reject what you've said in the past and ignore what you say in the future.
    • You may no longer be viewed as a trusted adult who can be turned to in a crisis.

Now, what can you do about all of this? How do you go about talking with your child when your own values and attitudes get in the way?

    • The first thing you need to do is to acknowledge your own values and attitudes, and how they may affect your ability to talk openly about sexuality. You may not agree with the messages that children need to hear, but sometimes you still need to give them. Not only that, but you have to mean it when you give them.

      For example, you may have a really hard time accepting that homosexuality is okay. We would argue that certain situations require certain messages, whether you like it or not. You can't say that homosexuality is evil because you may be making a bad situation worse for a homosexual teen – we know that suicide rates and drug and alcohol abuse rates are higher for gay teenagers than straight teenagers. It's important not to confuse answers with messages – when asked what you think about homosexuality, it’s okay to tell a child that you don’t like it, but you must also be willing to give the message, “It's okay if you are gay. I will still be here to support you.”
    • Learn more about your own hang-ups. Find out where you picked up your values and attitudes, and view these sources with a more critical eye.
    • Educate yourself about the issues you should be discussing with your child. Look fairly at all sides of an issue.
    • Tell your child that you're not perfect – that everyone has prejudices that they struggle with in their own lives.
    • Know when you can't be fair about a specific topic, and invite someone else to talk with your child about the topic.


The last bulleted item in the first section ("And finally…") was adapted from Sexuality: Your Sons and Daughters with Intellectual Disabilities, Karin Melberg Schwier and Dave Hingsburger, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 2000.

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