Undivided: How to Teach Boundaries and Puberty

Preparing for Puberty by Teaching Kids About Boundaries

Feb. 12, 2021Updated Oct. 21, 2022

As our children approach the age of puberty — a time that is perhaps dreaded and celebrated in equal measure — we as parents are looking for ways to better prepare for what’s to come. For kids with disabilities, puberty isn’t just about the body’s maturation and the talks we need to have about those changes; it’s also fraught with the challenges that come with growing up in bodies that are often disproportionately examined, exercised, and manually prompted and supported by therapists, doctors, paraprofessionals, aides, and (of course) family. The mere fact of these daily intrusions means we need to spend a lot more time making sure our kids understand their bodies and their boundaries. There is also the too-real fact of sexual abuse, which continues to affect children and young adults with disabilities at levels we just don’t talk about enough. And, of course, puberty can bring with it the beginnings of real interest in love and companionship. This is a big soup of issues, to put it mildly!

To help us approach some of these challenges, we reached out to Amy Machado (M.A., BCBA), CEO and clinical director of the SEEDS Therapy Center in San Diego. Be sure not to miss the wealth of resources shared by Machado as well as parents in our community at the bottom of this article!

The Importance of Teaching Awareness and Boundaries

With this population, there’s so much focus on teaching daily living skills,” Machado tells us. While that’s obviously important, it’s just as important to start teaching the language and concepts of boundary awareness, as well as social and bodily autonomy. This should be integrated into everything we’re doing with our kids from an early age. And if you haven’t done it yet, you can start now! The important thing is to do this work before our kids become teens and early adults.”

Machado became interested in providing social-sexual education to kids and young adults with disabilities after more than 20 years as an ABA therapist, where she heard from too many distraught parents about some abuse that had occurred. “I started in early intervention,” Machado tells us. “About nine years ago, I started working with teens and young adults. I was looking for programs specific to puberty, and I couldn’t find anything, so I was winging it. I knew how important it was to teach about consent, and nobody was teaching it to these kids. Parents would come to me (especially parents of teens), and by the end of the intake conversation when I’d ask what else I needed to know, I’d get this answer describing some abuse, and it was heartbreaking and it made me angry. I got angry enough that I decided to do something about it.”

SEEDS (Self-Esteem Education & Development in Sexuality) was founded in 1987 by a nurse, Stacy Everson, out of a deep interest in helping young people with disabilities prepare for healthy and meaningful relationships. Machado joined forces with SEEDS just as Everson was hoping to retire. The curriculum they developed focuses on helping kids and young adults with disabilities understand the growth and maturation process associated with puberty and preparing them for healthy, safe relationships. “The myth about disability is that our kids can’t have relationships, or don’t want relationships, or that they don’t understand relationships,” Machado says. “That’s totally false. We want them to have these relationships, and to do that, we need to educate them. One of the things I kept seeing with the young adults I worked with is that people were still telling them where to go, what to do, and who to do it with. These kids never had any choice in the matter. We’re taking all that autonomy away from them, and that means they’re losing the opportunity to have relationships and all kinds of other things.”

Kids with disabilities are not taught sex ed in schools 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 39 states currently require that sex education be taught in schools. While this may sound like a positive statistic, only 9 of those states require that consent be taught as part of the curriculum. Worse, none of those states require that sex ed be taught to students in special education classes, leaving a very big gap that needs to be filled. “In California,” Machado tells us, “sex ed is mandated by law for neurotypical kids, but our kids are not getting it. If they spend some part of their day in gen ed, they may be present for the class, but a lot of it is over their heads because the curriculum is not adapted to their learning style.”

She adds, “The numbers are staggering when you look at the amount of abuse experienced by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Ultimately, our kids need to understand their own bodies, how they grow and mature and interact with others. They need to understand that boundaries change with every single person you interact with.”

Many of the teens and young adults who come to SEEDS have been abused by people they know and trust; for Machado, this demonstrates that as parents (and society at large), we’re not giving our kids the information and tools they need to identify what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. “They’re engaging in inappropriate boundaries themselves because nobody ever taught them,” she says. “They don’t understand that it’s okay to touch their own body but that you don’t do it on the bus. You don’t talk about your period with the 7-11 clerk. One of the things we teach parents is to stop thinking about ‘the sex talk’ as a one-time event. It needs to start early, and we need to have lots of talks over time.”

Teach "public" vs. "private"

As parents, teaching the basics about privacy and the concepts of public and private are critical. “This can be taught at any age,” Machado says. “I taught my daughter at two. I also work with adults who have never been taught the difference. We teach that there are public and private places, public and private body parts, public and private talk, and public and private behavior. And while the behavior component is generally taught at a G or PG level, we can also teach it at a more advanced level for people who are in relationships.”

So how do you do this, exactly? The first thing SEEDS teaches — to both the kids and young adults they work with, and in their parent-training workshops — is the difference between public and private places. “The goal is to make it as concrete as possible. It can be as easy as playing a game. Get a pack of pink and yellow sticky notes and walk through the house with your child. Put yellow sticky notes throughout the house in shared spaces, and as you do, say ‘This is a public place.’ The only private place you have is your bedroom, so this is where the pink sticky note goes. We can work on that for a long time. When the door is open, it’s not private. When the blinds are open, it’s not private. The UPS guy can see in your window. If we close the blinds and the door, now it’s private. The private space is anywhere you can be naked for a long time. Yes, we get naked in the shower, but most of us don’t have a private bathroom — we share it. You can’t just stay in there for hours if you want to; somebody else will need to come in eventually. The concept is that your bedroom is your private place, a place where you can get naked and do private things, where we can have a talk about private things. But you can’t get naked and run through your living room when you’re seventeen.”

Teach "appropriate" vs. "inappropriate"

To teach difficult concepts, SEEDS uses a lot of visuals such as photographs and graphics to show different social situations. ”When we talk about boundaries and consent, for example, we might show a picture of a family embracing and say that it’s okay for family members to hug each other,” Machado says. “But we also need to teach our kids about consent. They should understand that if they don’t want to be hugged by a family member, that’s okay. We start by telling them, ‘You are the most important person in your life. That means it doesn’t matter who you’re with — you have control over whether you get touched or not.’”

It’s also important to help kids and young adults understand what is appropriate when they are being assisted in the restroom, for example. “In our family lesson, we talk about ‘helping touches’ in the shower and the restroom,” Machado says. She explains that they use the same phrase in their lesson on support staff (acquaintances), since these are also the people providing "helping touches" in the bathroom. “Most of the kids we work with need help in the shower and with toileting,” she says, “so it’s important to teach them that if a ‘helping touch’ lasts too long or makes them uncomfortable or sad or scared, then it’s not okay. We need to make it as concrete as possible.”

We can start teaching these concepts with our kids now by modeling the appropriate behavior in the bathroom. “For example, I ask my daughter, ‘Can I help you wipe?’” Machado says.“It’s as simple as that. We’re trying to teach them what is expected and what is appropriate, so if somebody crosses those boundaries, they will know that’s not okay. They will know to think, ‘Mom always asks me if it’s okay before she does this. Mom always wears gloves.’ Teaching them these boundaries early helps build prevention.”

Teach "acquaintance" vs. "friend"

It’s important to help kids understand that the boundaries we have with family will be different from the boundaries we have with friends and strangers. “We don’t teach ‘stranger danger’ at SEEDS because every single one of us interacts with strangers every day,” Machado says. “Let’s not teach kids to make fear-based decisions — let’s give them information. Is it okay to ask the time? Of course. If you bump into somebody in the grocery store, do you look away? No, you say ‘I’m sorry.’ Knowledge is power — the protection model has been operating for decades and it’s not working.”

Machado tells us that the highest risk for abuse is by someone we know, usually an acquaintance — so it’s very important to talk with our kids about the trusted people in their lives, and to help them understand the difference between an acquaintance and a friend. “We teach children that their teacher, therapist, and school aide are not their friends — they’re paid to be there,” Machado tells us. This is something that as parents, many of us unintentionally get wrong. We might refer to the speech therapist or the long-time school aide as a friend, but this is teaching our kids a lesson we don’t intend. While we may like and trust our kid’s teachers and therapists, we need our kids to understand that even trusted people in their lives are not family or friends. And because they’re acquaintances, it’s okay to shake their hand or give a high-five or a fistbump, “and maybe a side hug if you’re comfortable with that person,” Machado says, “but a front hug is not okay.”

To help our kids understand that we see friendly people all the time, but they are not our friends, Machado says, we also need to explain the difference between “friend” and “friendly.” She says, “We teach kids that there are four requirements for being a friend, which gives them concrete parameters to navigate some very tricky social boundaries and discriminate between expected and unexpected behavior. Just because someone is being friendly toward you does not make them your friend. If we tell our kids that the respite worker is their friend and that they care about them, the kid might think, ‘Well, they’re my friend and they care about me, so we can have this little secret.’”

Behavioral changes to look for

Machado says that unfortunately, many parents come to SEEDS when they suspect something has already happened. And while it is impossible to say how any child might react to abuse because each child and situation is different, she advises parents to stay alert to behaviors that are out of the ordinary. “Maybe kids are suddenly wanting distance from somebody they normally liked or felt comfortable around before,” she says. “Maybe they’re experiencing a drastic change of behavior in dress or routines. I’ve worked with kids who all of a sudden started to lock the bathroom door and didn’t want anybody to help them in the bathroom. So it’s specific to each child, but usually we see dramatic changes in behavior, or a change in attitude toward a certain person. But there are a lot of nuances — to make a blanket statement about what to look for can be counterproductive. We focus on teaching, prevention, being super proactive, and giving our kids as much information as possible. Ultimately, this is about helping them live healthy, fulfilling lives.”

Books for teaching about puberty

We asked Amy Machado as well as our community of parents on the street to share books and resources they’ve found helpful in preparing their kids for puberty.

Book recommendations from Amy Machado:

1) What’s Happening to Tom? A book about Puberty for Boys and Young Men with Autism and Related Conditions, by Kate E. Reynolds

Written for boys aged 10–17, the book uses plain language and frank but humorous illustrations to discuss the physical and emotional changes that boys experience during puberty.

2) What’s Happening to Ellie? A Book about Puberty for Girls and Young Women with Autism and Related Conditions, by Kate E. Reynolds

Written for girls aged 10–17, the book uses plain language and frank but humorous illustrations to discuss the physical and emotional changes that girls experience during puberty.

3) The “What’s Happening to My Body” Book for Boys, by Lynda Madaras

Written and illustrated for neurotypical boys 10 and up, the author collaborated with her daughter to create “sensitive straight talk” (with detailed drawings) about what happens during puberty and beyond, covering everything from wet dreams to STDs and birth control.

4) The “What’s Happening to My Body” Book for Girls, by Lynda Madaras

Written and illustrated for neurotypical girls 10 and up, the author collaborated with her daughter to create “sensitive straight talk” (with detailed drawings) about what happens during puberty and beyond, covering everything from periods to anorexia to STDs and birth control.

5) It’s OK to Be You: A Frank and Funny Guide to Growing Up, by Claire Patterson and Lindsay Quilter

Written for boys and girls ages 8–12, this book uses humor and cartoon characters to talk about the changes that happen to both girls and boys entering puberty; while its focus is on acceptance, reviewers note it is less culturally inclusive and comprehensive than other books on the subject.

Recommendations from author and Undivided friend Amy Silverman:

6) Teaching Children with Down Syndrome about their Bodies, Boundaries, and Sexuality, by Terri Couwenhoven

Written for parents of children with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities by a parent of a child with Down syndrome who is also a sex educator, this acclaimed book offers insightful conversations and teaching activities to use in talking with our kids about puberty, sexuality, relationships, boundaries and privacy, and more.

Recommendations from fellow Undivided mom Karen Cull:

7) The Boys Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU, by Kelli Dunham and Steve Björkman

Written (and illustrated) for boys 10 and up, the book focuses on staying true to yourself during the changes brought by puberty, from what’s happening to the body to dealing with emotions and peer pressure.

8) It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley

For boys and girls ages 10–13, “playful and realistic” illustrations accompany discussions on “nearly every imaginable question” kids have from conception to adoption, and what it means to grow up to be healthy and responsible for ourselves and our bodies.

9) VIDEO: Dating, Sex, Marriage. OH MY!!! Sex, Romantic and Other Social Relationships

This talk was given at a 2017 UCEDD conference by SEEDS founder Stacy Everson, RN, and covers the “do’s and don’ts in the big relationship we call love,” and how to help our kids have safe relationships.

Curriculum for teaching about puberty

Machado tells us that SEEDS has been working overtime to digitize their curriculum so it’s more readily available to parents and teachers alike. “The more people we can help, the better,” she says. “I love what I do, and my long-term mission is to take this to Sacramento. My dream for SEEDS is to have our curriculum be available to anybody and everybody. I believe this information should be available to every child in every single school district. Every teacher should be teaching it to every kid with a disability.”

We are 100% behind Amy Machado’s dream, and all the work she and her team do every day to prepare our kids for the kinds of loving, respectful relationships they deserve. Thank you, Amy!

Do you have resources or tips that have worked for you? Please share with our community of parents!



The Importance of Teaching Awareness and Boundaries

How to talk about boundaries and consent with kids

Books for teaching about puberty

Curriculum for teaching about puberty

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