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

Responding to Behaviors and Comments

(For Parents of Children with Developmental Disabilities)
 

Let’s take a look at how to respond to behaviors and comments that seem sexual in nature. There are six steps to follow.

Here we go...

Step #1: Decide first if it is better to ignore the situation. If ignoring the situation is inappropriate, then continue with steps 2-6.

Here’s an example of a behavior that you can ignore: Let’s say that you’ve already discussed masturbation with your child, and that you’ve said it’s okay for them to masturbate in their bedroom as long as the door is closed and they’re all alone. One day you come home, and without thinking, you open your child’s door without knocking. You walk into the room and find your child masturbating. Say you’re sorry and get out of the room as quickly as possible. Your child has done nothing wrong, so you don’t need to respond to their behavior.

Here’s an example of a behavior you can’t ignore: Your 13 year-old son rubs his penis (through his clothing) constantly throughout the day.

 

Step #2: Name the behavior/comment to your child as you see or hear it; praise if appropriate. You might say to your child:

"I see that you are…"
“I heard you just…”

By naming the behavior or comment, you are making it quite clear to your child that you saw or heard what happened. This makes it harder for them to deny that it occurred. It also helps to insure that you are both talking about the same thing.

So, back to our example… your 13 year-old son rubs his penis throughout the day. Simply say to him, “I see that you are rubbing your penis a lot.”

 

Step #3: Find out the meaning of the behavior/comment to your child. You might say to your child:

"Tell me about that."
"Can you tell me why you are doing that?"
"How come you’re doing that?"
Watch your tone. You're seeking information, and you probably won't get any if you put your child on the defensive.

This may be the most important step of all because you can’t give a good response if you don’t know why your child is behaving the way they are. And the best way to find out the reason behind the behavior is to ask your child. If your child is non-verbal, your task will be considerably more difficult because you may have to figure out all of the possible reasons on your own.

So, let’s consider your 13 year-old son who rubs his penis throughout the day. Find out more about the behavior by asking, "Can you tell me why you are doing that?" It will probably be for one of the following reasons:

1. It feels good.
2. His penis is itchy (perhaps he has an infection).
3. His penis is itchy (perhaps he’s having an allergic reaction to a new detergent or soap).
4. New pubic hairs are causing itchiness.
5. His clothing is too tight.
6. He is really anxious and stressed out about something in his life.
7. He has been sexually abused.

To see even more possible reasons, read Information about Masturbation.

Now you can begin to understand why it is so important to know the reason behind the behavior before you respond to it. The response you give to the boy who enjoys the feeling when he rubs his penis is going to be a whole lot different than the response you give to the boy who’s been sexually abused.

 

Step #4: Decide what "messages" you want to give.

Once you know the reason behind the behavior, you need to decide what messages you want your child to receive. The messages in your mind may not necessarily be the same thing as the response that comes out of your mouth. Responses are built on messages, and messages are based on your own values and beliefs. That’s why it’s a good idea to already start thinking about where you stand on different sexual behaviors (for example, masturbation or viewing pornography on the Internet) before they have the potential to cause problems.

Back to your 13 year-old son who rubs his penis throughout the day. If he does it because it feels good, then you might have the following messages in the back of your mind:

I want my son to know that it’s okay to masturbate.
I want my son to know that masturbation should only be done in private.
I want to be sure my son knows what I mean by a “private” places.
I want my son to know that masturbation can be a problem if it interferes with daily living (he
    no longer finds time for family or friends, other interests, or schoolwork).

But what if he rubs his penis because he is really anxious and stressed out about something in his life? The messages might look something like this:

I want my son to know that everyone suffers from anxiety and stress at different times in
    their lives.
I want my son to know that there are healthier ways to deal with anxiety and stress.
I want my son to know that he can always talk with me whenever he’s anxious and stressed out.
I want my son to know that masturbation should only be done in private.
I want to be sure my son knows what I mean by a “private” places.

Again, responses are built on messages, and messages are based on values and beliefs. Depending upon the reason behind the behavior, different messages will need to be considered before giving your response.

 

Step #5: Give the messages by responding simply.

Finally, you get to respond to the behavior. Remember to respond as simply as possible. If your child needs to know more, they will let you know.

So, if your 13 year-old son rubs his penis throughout the day because it feels good, you can respond by saying, “I know that masturbation feels good, but it’s something we only do in private. Do you know what I mean by ‘private’”?

But if your 13 year-old son has been sexually abused, then your response is going to be a lot more complicated.

Note: Providing a response will be considerably more difficult if your child is non-verbal. You will have to provide a response for each of those possible reasons why your child may be exhibiting the behavior.

 

Step #6: Encourage your child to give you feedback. You could do this by saying:

"Okay?"
"Does that make sense?"
“Got any questions?”


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Time to Practice

Here’s your chance to practice responding to real situations that we’ve encountered with real children with developmental disabilities. Be sure you follow all six steps in responding to the situations.

For each situation, try to come up with as many reasons as possible for why the child might have acted or spoke the way they did. Then consider the messages that might apply to each possible reason. Finally, come up with a response for each possible reason.

Situation #1: In the bathroom you find your 3 year-old daughter standing by the toilet and saying, "I'm making pee-pee like a boy does."

Situation #2: You find your 4 year-old son and his 5 year-old female friend in the bathroom with their underpants down. The girl is looking intently at your son's penis.

Situation #3: Your 8 year-old daughter gives a big hug to her new teacher on his first day of work.

Note: It’s never okay for your child to hug a stranger, even if the stranger happens to be your child’s new teacher. To learn more about protecting your child from sexual abuse, please read Teaching Sexual Abuse Prevention: Circles and Relationships.

 

Situation #4:Your 10 year-old son goes up to girls in his class and touches them on the leg. The girls do not like this.

Situation #5: Your 11 year-old daughter comes home from school crying. She has been taking a lot of teasing lately because she is the first girl in her class to start developing breasts.

Situation # 6: Your 15 year-old son masturbates in the bathroom in the morning when everyone else needs to use the bathroom.

Situation # 7: You overhear your 18 year-old daughter talking on the phone. She’s telling a friend that she wants to have a baby so she’ll have someone to love.

 

Adapted from Healthy Foundations: The Teacher's Book, The Center for Family Life Education, Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey , 1993.

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