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management Kids Tips & Tricks Blog/Vlog

For most people, the teenage years are a time of great highs and soul-destroying lows. You get to experience some of the freedoms of adult life while at the same time being unsure who you are and how you fit in in the world.

A young person with SEN will also need to make the journey to adulthood, though it may be more complicated due to additional emotional, physical and mental challenges. So how can parents and carers support teenagers with special needs and help them navigate their way to a happy and fulfilling life?

Most Teenagers Rebel

rebellious teenager with SEN

Specialist SEN tutor Debbie has racked up almost thirty years teaching in mainstream secondary schools. Her son, who is now in his twenties, is neurotypical, while her nineteen-year-old daughter is neurodivergent.

She points out that all teenagers can be rebellious and defiant, with or without special needs. “We had a terrible time with my son when he was about thirteen or fourteen,” she recalls. “My priority at that time was just to keep him safe and out of prison! But although he fought back against restrictions, I could reason with him. He’s quite a people-pleaser and inside he understood how his behaviour was upsetting people.

“With my daughter, it’s been more difficult because of her neurodivergence,” Debbie continues. “It’s hard to rationalise with someone when they have a completely different way of viewing the world. She’s definitely not a people-pleaser so she’s not bothered if you don’t like what she’s saying or doing. It took me a long time to work out that what works best for her is constant reassurance. If she understands that my comments are coming from a place of love, she’s much more likely to listen.”

As Debbie points out, some children with SEN love rules while others panic at any kind of expectation. Even so, it’s usually best, she says, for teachers and tutors to adopt a friendly, cooperative approach with all teenagers and build a trusting relationship.

Teenagers With SEN Need Praise and Reassurance

Mum giving praise to teenager

In fact, Debbie maintains, most adolescents with special needs are crying out for positive attention. “These kids spend a lot of the time feeling that they’re ‘wrong’, which must take its toll on them,” she explains. “You have to ‘catch’ them doing things right and almost overdo the praise to help give them a sense of self-worth.”

The other thing that’s crucial for SEN teens, she says, is giving them hope for the future. “The pressure of GCSEs is difficult for all kids. Some of my autistic students have been trying so hard but they’re probably only going to get a level 1 or 2 in some subjects. You have to reassure them that there are other avenues they can explore in life.”

Managing Emotions is Difficult

teenager feeling unloved

Friendships and burgeoning romantic relationships – difficult for most young people – can also be especially tricky for teenagers who struggle with anxiety and understanding social situations.

Debbie says that it has been very difficult to watch her daughter deal with heartbreak. “She was feeling so unloved so the important thing was to make her feel loved by her family,” she explains. “I did that by spending time with her and talking through what had happened, just as you would with any teenager.”

Explaining Relationships Clearly

parent talking to teenage son

The National Autistic Society has information on their website, advising parents on how to discuss puberty, sex and relationships with a youngster with ASD. They point out that young people will often need these things explained to them in very clear terms.

‘Your child might need help to understand social interaction in order to sustain a relationship. You may need to discuss why some people get married or choose to live permanently with one person. You could explain these things by discussing your relationship with your partner or those of other family members.’

Teenagers with ASD may also need help, they say, in managing their sensory issues in relationships – for example, if the idea of hugging and kissing makes them uncomfortable. As with all young people, they will need to understand how to avoid pregnancy and stay safe in a sexual relationship.

Staying safe online is another important aspect of becoming an adult and many organisations, including the NSPCC and Contact A Family (download their pdf here), offer information on this.

Find the perfect SEN tutor for your teen >>

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