Struggling to know where (or when) to start talking to your kids, or clients, with developmental disabilities about healthy relationships and sex? We shared 10 tips over 10 days on LinkedIn and Facebook to help motivate and guide you in these important conversations, and are posting them all together here for your reference.
Tip #1: Start Talking!
Don’t wait for them to ask. Don’t wait for something bad to happen. And don’t wait for a good “in”. The longer you wait to have these conversations about dating, sex, and safety, the higher the risk of being exploited. Education is key to prevention, and education starts at home.
You can bring up topics like consent, assertiveness, and body safety in everyday conversations. For example, asking your son, daughter, or client if it’s okay to hug them instead of just diving right in for a big bear hug that might make them uncomfortable. Or giving them options for what they want to do today, encouraging them to make their wants and needs known, and praising them for speaking up.
Share your ideas on how to start this conversation by commenting! And as always, I am happy to provide any help and resources.
Tip #2: Get yourself educated
A recent study shows that men still don’t know what consent really means (source). Do you? Do you fully understand the definitions of sexual assault, consent, the different types of abuse, patterns and cycles of abuse, and assertiveness? If not, you aren’t going to be able to teach others. There are tons of resources out there, and I am happy to help parents and caregivers learn more!
Know a great resource to share with other parents and caregivers on education around healthy relationships? Post it here!
Tip #3: It’s not just about sex
Sex can be a part of a romantic relationship, but there is so much more to talk about when it comes to safety in relationships. Don’t just explain how to use birth control, health and anatomy, and consent/sexual assault.
Think about your own relationships. What makes the good ones good? What makes the bad ones bad? Share these experiences with people with disabilities to provide concrete examples of what is good or bad in a relationship. Talk about how to communicate with your partner, listen to your partner, and respect each other. It’s important that we not only focus on just keeping people safe, but also empowering them to have the kind of meaningful relationships that they want.
Try this: talk to your son, daughter, or client about what they look for in friends and/or romantic partners. What qualities are important in a relationship (respect, listening, empathy, humor, honesty, etc.)? What qualities do YOU have that can make a relationship good? Write them down, both to remind him/her about their own fantastic abilities, and to use as a checklist in the future when considering a friend or romantic partner.
Tip #4: Be A Role Model
If you have kids in the house, they are watching are you. Not in a creepy way, but they look up to you and are learning from you. For men, make sure that you are open, honest, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Our media often perpetuates “toxic masculinity”, a society in which men have to be tough, strong, in charge, and don’t cry. But this attitude makes for terrible communication and relationship skills.
Try to take a look at your own relationships (again!). When you disagree with your son, daughter, or client, or someone else when they are in the room, show them what it means to compromise and have respectful dialogue, instead of yelling. When they get involved in a romantic relationship in the future, they will then expect that same behavior from their partner.
Tip #5: Consider Your Own Values
Think about your own views on sex and dating. Do you believe in waiting until marriage to have sex? How do you feel about contraception? Comprehensive sex education? Porn and masturbation? Now think about those same beliefs, but in regard to someone with a disability. Are they the same?
If you have negative views about sexuality, those are going to come out in any conversations you have, and could impact your son, daughter, or client’s views also. Think about what you are conveying when you talk about sex. Do you see it as something dirty, something shameful? If that’s how you communicate it to someone with a disability, they may be inclined to engage in sexual acts in secret. This puts them at greater risk of exploitation, because if no one knows what they are doing, no one is able to provide some guidance on safety.
Tip #6: Be Cool
Sex is an awkward topic to discuss. Most people get really uncomfortable, start stumbling over words, and cut the conversation short. Your son, daughter, or client with a disability is going to sense that tension, and may themselves want to cut the conversation short.
Try using visual aids, social stories or books, videos, and other interesting online content to normalize the conversation. Again, it helps to prepare ahead of time and think about your own values around sex and relationships. If you are not comfortable discussing these topics, it is important to find someone who can. Heart Consulting is a good place to start, contact us with any questions!
Tip #7: Create a Safety Plan
Be sure to talk to your son, daughter, or client with a disability about what to do if they have been sexually assaulted, harassed, or otherwise harmed. Who can they talk to? Where can they go? What resources are available following an assault for advocacy and support? Be proactive and have a plan. Hopefully you will never have to use it, but waiting until something bad happens to take action is not going to do nearly as much good as being proactive in the first place.
Tip #8: Media vs. Real Life
We’ve all seen the movies where the female lead falls head over heels in love with the male lead, despite the fact he is total creep. Prime example: Twilight. The male vampire tells Bella that he has been watching her sleep at night, and she falls in love. Abandons her life as a human to be with a vampire, all for love. But what is this telling the (primarily young) men and women watching? That it’s okay to stalk someone? That you should give up everything you previously cared about for a boyfriend/girlfriend? Boundaries are important in relationships, you can love someone and still set boundaries and expect them to be respected.
These “romantic” plots are all too common and can be damaging to someone who does not have much experience with dating and relationships. When you see a concerning behavior by a character in a book, movie, or TV show, talk to your son, daughter, or client with a developmental disability about why that is not realistic, and what would happen if someone acted that way in real life. Example, if someone told me he was watching me sleep at night, I would call the police and get a restraining order.
What movies or TV shows have you seen that portray this sort of over-the-top, I’ll-do-anything-for-this- person-I-just-met, type of behavior? Or any behavior that would not be considered respectful or appropriate in real life, but is made out to be romantic in the movie/show/book?
Tip #9: Talk about online safety
Technology is a part of almost everything we do these days. While it’s great having access to what we need quickly, it has also made predatory behavior easier. This does not mean that we need to take away phones, computers, or the internet from people with disabilities to keep them safe, but it’s important to have conversations about technology and safety.
Important topics to discuss around tech include cyber bullying, trolling, stalking, what is okay to share online, online dating, revenge porn, sexting, pornography, and safety when using apps such as Uber. There are apps out there that are meant to keep people safe, like Circle of 6 to help if an emergency is occurring. But it’s important to once again be proactive to avoid dangerous situations in the first place. Check out the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s resources on technology safety and violence for more information. And as always, contact me with any questions!
Tip #10: Keep the conversation going
One talk is not enough. Most people have more than one intimate partner in their life, and we learn something from each of them. After every break up, discuss what went well and what didn’t. There are so many topics to discuss around dating and sex, it doesn’t make sense to cram it all into one conversation and be done with it. Additionally, repetition helps with learning, especially for many people with developmental disabilities. And you can try a variety of approaches on the same subject to find what works best for both of you.
I hope our #10tips10days were helpful! Which did you find most useful?