Parenting and puberty – how to navigate “The Agony and Ecstasy Years” with a special-needs child

Puberty can be a challenging and tumultuous time not just for kids, but also for parents.

The average age for girls to begin puberty is 11 years and for boys, 12. However, the age puberty begins can vary from 8–14, depending on the child.

Face facts; if you are a parent, you will have to deal with your child hitting puberty at some point. The best way to deal with this, regardless of whatever additional or different needs your child may have, is to be prepared.

1. Talk about what to expect

  • Make sure you talk to your child about the physical changes their body will go through before it happens so they’re prepared. Be prepared to bring the topic up and don’t wait for them to ask – some kids never do. It’s especially important to explain what menstruation is before your child gets their period, so aren’t shocked or frightened when it comes.
  • Use correct body part names with your children – penis, vulva, testicles, breasts, nipples – they are just body parts like elbows and knees and should be treated as such. You can elaborate by explaining that some parts are private so we cover them up with undies/togs. Read books with your child about physical changes they can expect with puberty. Reassure them that everything is normal but if they are worried they can talk to you.

2. Talk over a long period of time

  • Talking about puberty and sex doesn’t have to be a single, sit-down conversation where you explain everything (i.e. “the talk”) and then the subject is never raised again. Look for opportunities to talk about puberty or sex over a long period of time – weeks, months or years. By being open, honest and available to answer your kid’s questions right from when they’re little then it makes communication easier as they get older.
  • Sometimes our children’s bodies develop before their own emotional or intellectual understanding, so it’s important to check in with your child regularly as they reach their tweens and teens.
  • Use Family Planning resources: they have a lot of free resources and courses for teaching children and young people about sexual health and puberty. They also have a specific course for teaching children with learning difficulties called The Colours of Sexuality.

3. Be open and honest

  • Kids can be exposed to a whole lot of misinformation about puberty and sex from their friends, movies, TV or the internet, so it’s really important that you provide them with accurate information and be honest.
  • Talk to your child about the changes different sexes go through. It’s also good to talk about pregnancy, sexual orientation, safe sex/contraception and consent.
  • Answer their questions in an age-appropriate but simple way. A 4-year-old doesn’t need a biology lesson, but they can understand that a baby grows in a Mummy’s womb, and that your womb is inside your tummy area.
  • Teach them about consent. Help them understand that no one touches them without permission, and that it’s OK to say “NO” to an adult or other child if they are uncomfortable. In the same vein, teach them that they do not touch anyone else without permission, and that they should always ask before giving someone a hug or kiss.
  • Teach them about their own body. Being prepared for the changes of puberty mean knowing what your body looks like now.
  • Be honest. If your child asks you something you don’t know, tell them. If you are feeling embarrassed about discussing certain topics, tell your child that you are finding it awkward but you will try and help. You child needs to know that you are only human, and that you are doing your best for them.

4. Explain the physical AND emotional changes

  • When talking about puberty the focus is often on the physical changes, but it’s important to talk about the emotional changes as well.
  • Feeling self-conscious, mood swings and intense emotions are all par for the course during puberty. It’s also a time for your child to forge their identity, and they’ll want to feel accepted by their peers and be “cool”.
  • Be prepared for incredible mood-swings and potentially challenging behaviour, especially if your child has difficulty with communication in general. Try not to take outbursts personally, your child is dealing with intense hormonal changes and needs support and understanding. However, it is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour, so when everyone is calm and receptive, discuss family expectations and set up boundaries and consequences.
  • Make sure your child feels safe at home. Having somewhere they can retreat to when everything is either just too much, or they just need to wind down is vital for maintaining good mental health and emotional regulation.

5. Puberty and sex are normal and natural

  • While some parents may feel embarrassed talking to their kids about puberty, remember it’s a completely natural process that everybody goes through, and sexual feelings and acts are normal and natural too. You child will take their cue from you, so if you feel embarrassed or awkward or convey the message that sex is shameful or wrong, they will take that on board.
  • Encourage your children to ask questions and keep the lines of communication open. And remember knowledge is power – by talking them through this weird and wonderful stage in life you are giving your children the tools to navigate through puberty as smoothly as possible!
  • Remember: information is not permission. Help your child understand that giving them advice and information does not mean you are giving them permission to do something potentially illegal or dangerous. However, teens with accurate knowledge about sex tend to make better choices.

6. Practical preparation

  • Get in supplies for menstruation and help your child to know what they are, where they are and how to use them. Pads are the best option for beginners, and there are also new period-proof undies on the market.  If your child is capable of looking after their own personal hygiene, then track their cycle with them and help them be prepared for their period each month so there are no surprises!
  • Finally, have a supply of condoms available if you think your child may be becoming sexually active, the legal age of consent in NZ is 16. You can access free condoms from

Learn more

Changes at puberty Family Planning, NZ
Your body Family Planning, NZ
What’s happening to my body? Stages of puberty in girls
Positive puberty: year 6–8 sexuality education TKI, Ministry of Education, NZ
Scarleteen Inclusive, comprehensive, supportive sexuality and relationships info for teens and emerging adults
Advocates for Youth sexual health education for young people with disabilities (US based)
Ministry of Education sexuality education in the NZ curriculum

louise ratcliffe
Louise Ratcliffe
Information Officer
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