Emotional changes – normal

Puberty brings emotional and behavioural changes as well.


Puberty brings a lot of changes for children with intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder, not just  body changes but emotional and behavioural changes as well. You might be familiar with the stereotype of the moody teenager during puberty, but sometimes it can be hard to know when emotional changes are normal or require some extra support. This can be especially difficult if your child has complex communication or support needs which can impact their ability to express their need for support.

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Feeling sensitive

Your child may feel uncomfortable or be unable to cope with some of the sensory changes in their body, growth spurts and emotions during puberty.

Looking for identity

Children often struggle for independence and a sense of self outside the family unit during puberty.  This is no different for children with intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder. Lots of things contribute to your child’s search for identity, including their gender and who they are attracted to. For more information, go to Supporting Sexual and Gender Identity.

Feeling lost

Children can often feel upset about the changes in their life and the changes of people around them. They may feel lost because they want to fit into a friendship group but don’t know how,  or because they are unsure about the changing expectations of what is “for kids” and what is “for adults”. For strategies on how to support your child to feel good about themselves, go to Creating a Positive Self Image.

Peer pressure

During puberty, you may find your child is more and more influenced by things they see in the media and online, and in their peer circles. This may include peer circles at school, activity groups, or other support services they access. It’s very common for children to pick up behaviours and language from peers that might be “naughty” or inappropriate. Children may do these things for fun, to test boundaries, or because everybody else is doing it.  Peer pressure can be a particular struggle for children with intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder who may  not feel included in friendship groups. Read more about supporting your child with healthy friendships here.

Mood swings

It is very common for children’s moods to change rapidly as they grow through puberty. Your child may appear to be happy and then quickly become upset or irritated over seemingly small things. Their emotions can be bigger and more intense. These emotions can be very different to the emotions your child experienced when they were younger, which can be scary for parent and child.   Read more about mood swings here.


As your child develops, they may start to feel self conscious about their changing body and may want more independence and privacy. Every child will grow at their own pace but it’s important to recognise that your child may feel awkward or embarrassed about these changes as they happen. If this is the case, it is a good time to think about how you can support your child to be more independent. You can do this by reinforcing your child’s understanding of public and private parts, behaviours and places, and also supporting them to be more independent in their personal care needs.

Developing sexual feelings

As your child goes through puberty you may find that there is an increase in private behaviours and interest in private body parts. They may start to talk about having sexual feelings about other people. This is normal and while this may seem scary for you, it is important not to shame or embarrass children about the development of their sexuality. Children may seek more private time at this stage of development and may begin to explore private behaviours like masturbation, so it can be an excellent time to reinforce the rules around public and private behaviours.

If you are concerned that your child’s emotional or behavioural changes are not normal, or your child is experiencing persistent negative emotions, you may find it useful to talk to your GP.

You can use apps like https://www.mysigns.health/ or https://www.healthymind.org.au/ to help track moods and emotional changes.

Remember, during puberty there may be changes in emotions for no particular reason. You, as the parent, are not a mind reader! It’s OK to not know how someone is feeling and why they are feeling a certain way. This is why it’s important to help find a way to communicate and express emotions. See Communication and Social Skills

Conversation Starters

I’ve noticed that you’re very quiet today. Can you show me on the picture board how you’re feeling?
When you get older you might want a bit more privacy or independence. Is there anything you’d like to start doing by yourself? How can I help you?
When you grow up you might start feeling a bit moody. Let’s have a look at how you can show/tell me how you’re feeling and we can try some different things to make you feel better

Strategies for you to try

Normalise the expression of emotions

Asking people to “stop crying” or “calm down” invalidates feelings. Instead, help your child to recognise what they are feeling by using tools such as emotion cards, toys, colour charts or even simple smiley/frowny faces.

Create a safe space for your child to express their emotion

This might look like a sensory space where it is safe to have a cry and self soothe or using music or art to release frustration/angry feelings. This is especially useful for children who may be non-verbal.

Model appropriate emotional reactions for your child.

It can be difficult to control your reactions and responses to emotions, but it’s important to show children what healthy responses to different emotions are. For example, reacting with a “Whoops!” when someone trips over shows that it’s not a serious injury and isn’t a cause for emotional distress. This also teaches children that while you can’t control your emotions all the time, you can control your response to emotion.

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Introduction to puberty for girls
Emotional changes – normal

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