Before you start

Parents say that they find it difficult to talk to their young children about relationships, sexuality and growing up. This section has been designed to help you begin and continue these important conversations.

Why talk to your child about relationships, sex and growing up?

The family is the first place where children learn about loving and caring for themselves and others. Children absorb spoken and unspoken messages from birth about relationships, sexuality and growing up. These influence the kind of adolescents and adults that they become and the choices that they later make.

Just as you help your child’s healthy growth and development in all other ways, consciously supporting the development of their sexuality will help them achieve the attitudes, values and skills that they need to have healthy relationships with themselves and with others.

Research suggests a number of benefits to giving age-appropriate information on relationships and sexuality in response to pre-adolescent children’s questions. For example, it can create an environment in which teenage children feel comfortable to continue having these conversations with their parents. (Hyde et al, 2010).

This site will help you to navigate this complex, yet essential, subject, as your child develops from infancy to adolescence and through to adulthood.

What is the difference between sex and sexuality?

People sometimes use the word ‘sex’ to describe if a person is male or female. They also use it to refer to sexual activity. ‘Sexuality’ includes both of these but is much broader. It’s to do with how we feel about and express ourselves as sexual beings and how we form relationships with the people in our lives.

The terms ‘sex education’ and ‘sexuality education’ are often used to describe the same thing. However, in Irish schools, this is referred to as “Relationships and Sexuality Education”. This is to emphasise that, although the subject covers issues around sexual activity for older adolescents, it is about so much more than that. According to the World Health Organisation, sexuality education should cover the physical, emotional and social aspects of a person’s development.

The Sexuality Wheel gives an idea of the many elements that make up or influence a person’s sexuality. It shows that our understanding and experience of our sexuality and how we express it in the world is a core part of who we are as human beings.

You can view the Sexuality Wheel here.

When should I begin?

You’ve already started! Whether or not you’re aware, your child has been getting spoken and unspoken messages about relationships and sexuality since birth. Your child’s day-to-day experience of witnessing and experiencing secure, loving connections with family, carers and friends will have long-lasting effects on their ability to make sound relationship choices in adolescence and adulthood.

These messages about relationships and sexuality are transmitted to your child through how you and others:

  • care for and hold them
  • relate and speak to them and to others around them
  • react to their early comments and questions about sexuality issues like: “Where do babies come from?” or “Why don’t girls have willies?”
  • react to the child’s exploration of their own bodies, especially their genitals
  • refer to, or not refer to, private body parts and the language you use
  • speak about, and act out, your beliefs about gender and gender roles

What you do and say is shaping your child’s understanding of their developing sexuality. 

Shouldn’t I wait and have ‘the talk’?

Far from the traditional idea of ‘the talk’, sexuality education should be an ongoing process. The thing to remember is you are not preparing for a ‘title fight’ - one big talk about the ‘birds and bees’. You won’t have only one opportunity to get it right; you’ll have a lifetime of opportunities to help your child develop a healthy sense of themselves and their sexuality.

It is all about:

  • regular communication. Layering as opposed to one ‘big’ talk.
  • listening and understanding what is going on in your child’s life
  • answering questions as they arise
  • learning together, and proactively drip feeding information as you go

Your role is central in equipping your child with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate through life; to develop a lens to filter negative influences in their life from school, their peers, social media and television.

As one parent said in the research:

Rather than one conversation it’s just small bits and pieces as you go along, layering it in rather than loading it on.” (Parent’s quote - Conlon, 2018)

Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) Curriculum in schools

Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is taught from Junior Infants to Leaving Certificate, usually as a part of Social Personal Health Education (SPHE).

Schools can give general information and a safe space for the whole class to discuss, but you are the most important educator of your child when it comes to sexuality and relationships. Only you can share your values and give your child the individual attention they need at each stage of their development.

As a parent, you can add to the RSE in schools by:

  • talking to your child at home about relationships, sexuality and growing up
  • making yourself aware of what your child is covering in school and making sure that your child has the opportunity to discuss it at home
  • making yourself aware of the school’s RSE policy and getting involved if the school is updating it

For more information on the curriculum, check out the Relationships and Sexuality Education page of the Professional Development Support Services for Teachers here

Feel the fear and do it anyway!

If you feel uncomfortable and possibly overwhelmed at the thought of tackling your child’s sexuality education, you are not alone. Recent Irish research asked 93 parents how they felt about raising the subject. Many of them reported discomfort, embarrassment and a fear of getting it wrong.

Despite the difficulties, these parents wanted to “break the cycle of silence, oppression, guilt and taboo around relationships, sexuality and growing up”.

If you too would like to give your child the gift of an open relationship, where you can talk, listen and learn together, the earlier you start, the easier it will be. Taking the first small steps in their early childhood, will set you both on the right road.

However, don’t be disheartened if your child is older and you haven’t talked to them about sex and sexuality yet. It may be a little harder to start, but it is never too late. You can do it!

You don’t have to have everything sorted before you start - that’s a recipe for doing nothing! For many parents, it will be a case of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, and that’s fine.

Many parents lack confidence when it comes to talking with their children about relationships, sexuality and growing up. If that sounds like you, a bit of planning should help reduce your anxiety. Below are a few things to consider.

Your childhood sexuality education

Think about your own childhood experiences of learning about relationships, sexuality and growing up. This can be a good starting point for preparing to talk to your child. Which aspects of your own experience would you like to pass on and which would you like to be different for your child?

Family and personal beliefs

There are different beliefs within families, and between families, about relationships, sexuality and growing up. What you want to teach your child around relationships may differ from what your neighbours and friends consider appropriate.

There is no one size fits all approach; everyone has their own beliefs, thoughts and feelings about these topics.

Your thoughts and beliefs on common issues

What and how would you like to communicate to your children on the topics listed below? When do you think you should do this? Some of these topics are for the later years but you might want to consider your position before the issue comes up.

  • Healthy relationships (love, respect)
  • Different family structures
  • The body (naming genitals, body functions)
  • Appropriate public and private behaviours, including masturbation
  • Gender identity (masculine, feminine, fluid, etc.) and how people express this
  • Conception, pregnancy and babies
  • Breastfeeding
  • Sexual activity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pornography

Getting support for yourself

Sometimes knowing what to say to your child and when to say it is difficult and it can be useful to find support. You will find some helpful resources here.