Subscriber OnlyYour Family

How to talk to your children about sex: Start at an early age and build from there

Part 2: Following on from our piece on puberty, most of us want open conversation about sex with our children. Achieving that can be complex

“The sperm and the ovum must meet to make a baby.”

That’s as much detail as the girls in our class were given about sex during “the talk” in sixth class in primary school. There was no discussion about how these two were to meet. And no one felt brave enough to ask that question, having seen one girl reprimanded and made stand up in front of everyone for nervously giggling during the conversation about puberty. Her cheeks burned bright red with shame, and the rest of us fell silent, fearful of a similar fate.

Part 1: How to talk to your children about … puberty

Figuring out how the sperm and ovum were to meet was left to playground chatterings and titbits shared by the rare child who had very open parents.


These days, most of us want to have open conversations about sex with our children. But envisaging that scenario and realising it in practice can be two different things, if parents aren’t sure how to approach it.

“When we’re talking to children about sex, what we’re talking about really are relationships, intimacy, emotion, anatomy, consent – that’s what sex is. And rather than a birds-and-bees approach to things, it’s about taking a holistic approach to what sex is,” Dr Elaine Byrnes, DCU School of Psychology, says. “Sex is not just an act.”

So, when should we begin to have these holistic conversations about sex?

“It starts when they’re toddlers,” Dr Byrnes says. “And by that, I mean the body parts, anatomy and using the correct names for body parts. I think the way we put nicknames on body parts, reflects our own discomfort.

“Talking to your child about sex can be described as a creating a lasagne. You must have a foundation for it, a basis for it, and then you can add other layers, as a child gets older and in an age-appropriate way.

“The foundation that would start with our toddlers is anatomy, emotion and consent. And by consent at that very, very early age – the concept of sharing and not sharing. The concept of making sure the other person is okay – that you’ve shared that toy with them, or that you’ve taken that toy from them.”

When we talk about emotion, the concept of boundaries is the focus at this stage, Dr Byrnes explains. The idea of boundaries is something that children learn about in creche and Montessori, she says.

Dr Byrnes points to the example of “saying, ‘Give your granny a kiss. Or give Uncle Joe a kiss there.’ It’s about allowing children to understand it’s, ‘If you want to’. Again, if you’re comfortable or that’s something you want to do, off you go and do it.”

And how should we progress the conversation beyond those very early toddler years?

Conversations around puberty need to take place from an early age, particularly in light of the fact that children, girls in particular, begin puberty earlier, and this will help normalise discussions for them, Dr Byrnes explains.

Be an askable and a tellable person. Be their go-to person. From when they’re curious, answer their questions honestly

—  Dr Elaine Byrnes

Teaching children not to expose their bodies publicly, as younger children do, means explaining to them that “your body is yours and it’s private”, and should be done free of shame, Dr Byrnes says. “So it’s all coming from a place of protecting them and empowering them”.

Dr Byrnes says this is also the time to build on the foundations of anatomy, emotion and consent – “supporting them at this stage in understanding and vocalising ‘No’. It’s important at this stage to understand no one, especially their peers, should make them feel obliged to say ‘Yes’. Or feel guilty for saying ‘No thanks’.”

It also means children need to be allowed to say ‘No’ too, if they don’t want to hug a grandparent, she says. “If we’re going to create a consent culture, then we need to build on that from an early age. We need to allow children to make decisions that might feel hurtful to another person, but also it’s important for them, particularly at that younger kids stage, to learn that they are not responsible for somebody else’s feelings. I don’t mean encouraging them to have a cavalier attitude to other people’s feelings, but at the end of the day, they are not responsible.”

Having a conversation with grandparents, to let them know you’re talking about consent and boundaries with your child, may be helpful, Dr Byrnes says.

So, is there an age where we should talk to them about the physical side of sex?

There should be no set age to just sit down and discuss sex, unless we want to repeat our own experience of sex education, Dr Byrnes explains. Instead, teachable moments and everyday occurrences “such as something coming on the television can be an opportunity to start having conversations with them, using cues. It’s not formal. It’s not ‘the talk’. It’s not going to have you wincing and embarrassed, but it’s a way to introduce the conversation.

“Be an askable and a tellable person. Be their go-to person. From when they’re curious, answer their questions honestly. Let it happen organically. Use cues – we live in a highly sexualised world.

“It’s important for them to understand from a young age that not everyone is like their parents. To respect difference and respecting what’s different to them. That’s foundational stuff. Encouraging as part of the foundation, tolerance and understanding, and acceptance and embracing difference in other people.”

Empathy is also an important part of the conversation, she says. “Walking in another person’s shoes, how do you think that person would feel?”

When we talk about areas like this that are really, really sensitive, it’s important for parents to be kind to themselves and give themselves a break

—  Dr Elaine Byrnes

What about when they become teenagers, do we keep the conversations going?

“The teenage years may be the start of their experience with formal sex education at school and you’d hope to be sent home something which might indicate what’s being covered,” Dr Byrnes says. “Starting a conversation around that and asking ‘What did you think of it? Do you have any questions that you didn’t think were answered?’” can be a useful approach, she continues.

Dr Byrnes feels parents should be at least as interested in this subject as they are in the academic subjects their children are learning. “I think we should be more interested in a subject that could potentially have a huge impact on their lives. It’s such an important part of their lives – relationships with other people, their sexuality and its expression.”

For parents who are concerned their children may be sexually active, asking ‘What if’ questions can be an opportunity to get feedback from teenagers on various scenarios, and also for parents to “introduce some hard facts to them that they may not be aware of – that it is [sex below the age of 17] statutory rape”, she says.

Above all, Dr Byrnes says, parents should cut themselves some slack as they have these discussions, whatever the stage.

“When we talk about areas like this that are really, really sensitive, it’s important for parents to be kind to themselves and give themselves a break. They’re not sexologists, they’re not paediatricians, they’re not gynaecologists, they’re not psychologists.”

How to talk to your children about . . .