3 Steps to Support Children with I/DD to Have Healthy Relationships

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A mother and son. The son has Down Syndrome. He is leaning his head on his mother’s shoulder. The graphic says, “3 Steps to Support Children with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to Have Healthy Relationships.”We all want our children to have full lives. One important component of a full life is having a healthy, romantic/sexual relationship with a partner. If you are a parent, this can be a scary thought because they worry about how their kids will navigate these relationships and if they will be safe from harm or cause harm to others.

So what happens if we don’t talk about healthy relationships and sexuality with our kids. They will…

  • get information elsewhere, which can be inaccurate or misleading, or they might not get any at all.
  • miss the opportunity to hear your values and what you believe.
  • receive negative or fear based messages.
  • be at an increased risk for STIs, unplanned pregnancy, and abuse.
  • be at an increased risk of feeling lonely.
  • You know about the risks of not talking about it, now here’s our roadmap with three steps to make navigating these conversations feel a little less daunting.

Three diverse people giving a thumbs up symbol. Step 1:
Provide positive messages about relationships. 

We live in a culture that uses fear and negative messages when we talk about relationships and sexuality. Providing positive messages like these helps your child build a solid foundation for healthy relationships: “You deserve to have a relationship just like anyone else. You can ask me any questions about relationships. You are handsome and would make a great partner.”


A man with down syndrome giving flowers to his date. Step 2:
Discuss relationships with your child. 
What is a romantic/sexual relationship? 

By explaining what a romantic/sexual relationship is and discussing what that means, your child can begin to envision what a healthy relationship looks like. You can start by explaining that when you are in a romantic/sexual relationship, it means that you and your partner have decided to be more than friends.

You might describe the concept of a romantic/sexual relationship to your child as being a friend “plus more.” The “plus more” means sexual feelings for that person or feeling attracted to that person in a sexual way. Sometimes people in these relationships refer to each other as partner, significant other, sweetheart, boyfriend, or girlfriend.

One way to find someone is to first become their friend and then move into a romantic/ sexual relationship.

Find someone who is right for you. 

Help your child to think about what type of person they are attracted to and how to find someone who is appropriate: Who are your friends? Is there anyone in your group of friends to whom you are attracted? They may be attractive because of how they look, how they act, and how they make you feel.

Explain to your child that the first thing to do when you are feeling attracted to someone is to figure out whether this person can be in a relationship with you. There are some people that it isn’t okay to be in a romantic/sexual relationship with such as family members, children, people who aren’t at the age of consent (you may have to look up the age of consent for sex in your state), a staff person, or a helping professional.

Get to know the person.

Talk with your child about how they get to know someone they are interested in. You can start by discussing how they might do that and the need to be respectful:

  • You can flirt with them by saying nice things to them like “You look pretty today” or “I like your shirt.” How do you know saying nice things or flirting is working? If the person smiles or says nice things back to you, they may be interested. It’s important to understand, though, that some people react nicely to flirting because they are simply being pleasant, but not interested.
  • You can tell them you like them as more than a friend.
  • Ask them about their day or other polite topics.
  • You can ask them for their phone number to text them a friendly message or see if it would be okay to call or text them sometime. If the person doesn’t respond, it’s best not to continue texting them because they might not be interested.
  • You can ask them to join you in a group activity.
  • You can ask them out on a date.

A father and son talking. Step 3:
During conversations, share your values and why you believe what you believe. 

What are important messages that you want to give? How do you want your child to treat a partner? If you have values or expectations around dating that you wish to communicate to your child, share and explain them early on.

Young and adult children with disabilities need and want to learn about relationships and form these relationships. Helping them meet people and form healthy relationships is no easy task. Giving positive messages, sharing your values, being open, and discussing these topics create a strong foundation, and is a great place to start. Let them know that learning about relationships and how to have healthy ones is a lifelong process. We all learn as we go. Your willingness to talk with your child about this topic will have a positive impact on their lives.

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