My Special Needs 13 Year Old Might Start Dating!

As seen in New York Special Child Magazine and on

Dear Sharon,

We have a adolescent daughter whose special needs have placed her in special ed schools since she was a youngster. She is on the spectrum and with unique attention is doing very well. That said, we recently found out that she has developed a strong attraction to a boy in her school and apparently he feels the same.
What advice do you have for us in terms of them “dating” or moving forward with a relationship? We were completely unprepared for this even though she is 13 and it’s totally natural for her age group.

Any guidance would be appreciated.

Hi concerned parents,

The answer to your question is of course based on the specifics of your daughter’s overall social development but here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you sort things through.

As you mentioned 13 year olds naturally have attractions that become an important part of their lives. Almost all parents find it challenging to think about their child’s dating life, especially when it is beginning, and there are plenty of teens who are impulsive and have trouble thinking practically when it comes to handling young “romance.” There is often more parental involvement, patience and care needed with a special needs child who is navigating her first potential boyfriend but the following general guidelines apply.

When new relationships are blossoming it is important for parents to do whatever is needed to be in ongoing contact and communication with their child. While doing so if mom and dad can figure out ways to relax and have fun with their teen, potentially tense conversations are more likely to go smoothly,

13 year old relationships vary widely. Some teens with crushes barely talk to each other, others do lots more. In most cases some common “controversial” topics that need to be discussed are when, if and how to use social media wisely, how to sort through physical contact, if, when and where to spend time alone with a special friend and the importance of sharing questions and experiences with mom and dad.

Especially when parents are concerned they are often prone to offer lengthy opinions and suggestions. Although adult perspectives are invaluable when a special needs child starts to navigate the complicated world of adolescent affection, it is imperative that parents listen much more than they talk to their child. By listening calmly moms and dads can offer a safe environment for their child to sort things through. Parents can also get a sense of how things are going in the budding relationship and know when and if to offer support and guidance. Keeping dialogue flowing is probably the most important aspect of watching over a dating 13 year old, when things are secret there is sometimes more need for concern.

I believe the primary “rule” to keep in place is that parents know where their 13 year old is and who he or she is with at all times. Whenever possible it is also important to get to know the parents of your teen’s friend(s). Doing so can help create an ongoing watchful and caring presence. As you learn about the “rules” other parents keep in mind for their child ideally you can think through guidance and supervision for your children together. If other parent’s values differ from your own then your home is likely to become the primary place for your child to visit with their friend. Meeting your child’s friend in your home or other location will give you helpful information as you think about the pros and cons of the relationship.

It is also good to check with the school to find out if a budding connection is enhancing or detracting from school work and other relationships.

This kind of monitoring is especially important for special needs children who are often naively unaware of the potential pitfalls of adolescence and need adults to provide a framework to have things go well.

When setting limits or sharing perspectives it is important for parents to be brief and clear, taking plenty of time to listen to their child’s reaction even if they don’t agree with what he or she is saying. Moms and dads can let their child get their objections “off their chest” without changing their much needed parental point of view.

It can be wonderful for special needs young people to experience the joy and excitement of “young love”. It is important that parents and possibly other adults are aware of the details of a relationship so that the excitement is thought about and enjoyed.