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Development of sexuality in children

Find out how to teach your child about sexuality in a way that will help them to have a healthy attitude towards sex, love and their body.

Teaching your child about sexuality from a young age will help them to have a healthy attitude towards:

  • love and relationships
  • their body
  • gender
  • sexual orientation
  • sexual feelings as they get older

You can speak to your child about sexuality in a way that's appropriate for their age from early childhood. You can build on these discussions as they get older.

Babies and toddlers

Your child learns about relationships, sexuality and growing up from their relationship with you and what they see around them. You can teach your child about relationships and love by:

  • making eye contact with them
  • smiling at them
  • cuddling, kissing and hugging them
  • telling them that you love them and that they're important
  • not being afraid to kiss and hug your partner in front of your child

Your child also learns about things through touch, including touching their own bodies. You can teach them that their body is normal by accepting these explorations.

Genitals

Your child may play openly with their genitals. This is a part of their normal exploration. There's no reason to discourage them.

Your child may feel that something is wrong with that part of their body if you stop them touching themselves. If you feel you need to, you can gently distract your child rather than pulling their hands away. Tell them that any touching they do should be in a private place.

Name all the body parts, including the penis, scrotum and vulva when you're bathing them or changing their nappy. This makes it normal to refer to their body parts and will help your child to talk about them as necessary when they're older.

3 to 5 years

By this age, your child is aware and curious about the differences between the sexes.

They become aware of physical differences between the sexes and most develop a personal sense of themselves as a particular gender. They begin to understand and often imitate gender roles as they see them played out in their home and in society.

For example, they notice who does the laundry, who cuts the grass, who prepares food and who takes out the bins. Toddlers often reflect the relationships they observe around them in how they play.

Your child may:

  • be modest about their body
  • like being naked
  • be interested in their parents' bodies and how they differ from their own
  • ask you about the different parts of your own body and want to touch them
  • want to know where babies come from
  • like touching their own private parts when upset or tense, or as a comfort when they're going to sleep

Your child may also show their curiosity during playtime. For example, they may play doctors and nurses to explore their own and other young children's bodies in a safe way. This is normal so long as the children are a similar age and they don't find it upsetting.

Talk about babies and bodies in a language and at a level that your child can understand. You could:

  • use picture books to help you discuss it
  • start the chat when a relevant topic comes up on a TV programme
  • choose an everyday moment to talk, such as when you're tidying up around the house

Safety concerns

Be alert to times when your child may be exposed to harmful situations. Try to work out if anything is worrying them. Encourage them to tell you if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in any situation or with any person. Always believe your child and seek help if you have concerns.

You can find out more about harmful situations on the Tusla, Child and Family Agency website.

You can help your child to set and maintain boundaries by teaching them about different types of touch:

  • safe touch - this should make them feel cared for and important, and should only ever hurt or be uncomfortable to keep them safe and healthy (getting an injection for example)
  • unsafe touch - this hurts someone's body or their feelings (kicking and punching, for example)
  • unwanted touch - this is touch that isn't wanted from that person or at that time, and may also be unsafe

Gender and identity

Most children have a clear sense of themselves as a boy or girl that's aligned with their physical sexual features.

As they grow up, children tend to behave in ways that are similar to the behaviour they see around them that’s associated with their gender.

But they may also behave in ways that aren't typical for their gender and still clearly think of themselves as a boy or a girl.

You can help your child to fully express themselves by avoiding unhealthy ideas about gender, such as:

  • boys don't cry
  • girls must always be dainty and pretty

Transgender

Some children have a sense of their gender that’s different to the sex they were born into. They might develop this sense of who they are at a young age, and later identify as 'transgender' or 'trans'.

You can get more information and support if you think your child is transgender at:

Where to get help and information

For more information on your child's sexual development, consult your GP.

You can also find information online:

Page last reviewed: 20/11/2018
Next review due: 20/11/2021