1. How are girls’ and boys’ bodies different?
They probably won’t ask the question at this stage but don’t assume that they know how male and female bodies are different and how they work. Use diagrams to explain the names for the different genitalia if they don’t already know. Coming up to puberty, they will also need to know a little about the internal organs. The Busy Bodies booklet and DVD can be useful for this.
2. Why aren’t my breasts (or penis) as big as the other children my age?
Children go through puberty at their own pace; some develop faster than others. Sometimes during puberty it can seem that everyone is growing faster than you, and then you have a growth spurt and catch up. The size and shape of your adult body will have a lot to do with your genes. I know if can be a bit confusing but it will all work out in time.
At this stage most children want reassurance that their development is normal. Take your child through what happens to boys and girls during puberty using the Busy Bodies resource. If appropriate, you might like also to make a reference to your own pace of development when their age.
3. How are babies made?
Men have cells in their bodies called sperm and women have cells called eggs. If a man and a woman agree to have sexual intercourse, the man puts his penis into the woman’s vagina and sperm come out. If his sperm meets her egg, a baby can develop.
If they don’t already know about the internal sexual organs, you can use diagrams to explain, such as those on the Busy Bodies DVD. Later on you can explain that there are other, assisted ways in which pregnancies can happen.
It’s important that children and young people understand that sexual intercourse is only for consensual adults. The age of consent to sexual activity is 17 in Ireland.
4. How are children born?
A baby grows for around 9 months in a woman’s uterus (womb*) and comes out through her vagina. If necessary, doctors can operate to take the baby out, this is called a Caesarean section.’
*The womb and uterus are both anatomically correct words – use whichever you prefer.
Use the Busy Bodies DVD and booklet to explain this further.
5. What is a period?
Once a girl reaches puberty, her body begins to release an egg from her ovary each month and the lining of her womb gets thicker to prepare for a fertilised egg if she becomes pregnant (‘fertilised egg’ means an egg that has joined with a sperm). If the egg doesn't get fertilised, that lining is shed from her body, coming out as blood through her vagina. This is called a ‘period’ or ‘menstruation’.
You might want to explain that just because a girl’s body is capable of having a baby doesn’t meant that she is physically, emotionally or financially ready to have one.
Use the Busy Bodies resource to explain the menstrual cycle in detail.
6. What is a wet dream?
A wet dream is when semen (the fluid containing sperm) comes out of a boy’s penis while the boy’s asleep. This is natural and happens to most boys during puberty. It’s all part of growing up.
Use the Busy Bodies resource to explain further.
7. What is sex/ sexual activity?
The word sex is generally used to describe whether people are male or female (although not all people feel they fit into these categories).
The word can also be used to describe sexual activity.
The law says only adults can agree to be sexually active with another person.
If you want to describe sexual intercourse, you could add:
One way of being sexually active is called sexual intercourse. If a man and a woman agree to sexual intercourse, the man’s penis gets hard and then he puts his penis into the woman’s vagina. This is something only adults should do. Use the Busy Bodies resource to illustrate this.
8. When can you start having sex?
It is against the law in Ireland for someone to have sex with a person who is under 17, even if the person wants them to. This is known as ‘the age of consent’. That doesn’t mean that every 17 year old wants to have sex or that it’s right for them at that stage. It’s a personal decision for each person who is over the age the age of consent whether or not they have sex. Every time an adult has sex they have to be sure that the other person agrees – this is called ‘getting consent’.
9. What is a condom?
A condom is a thin sheath (cover) that a man can put over his penis before he has sex. If a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, using a condom properly will help prevent sperm getting into the woman’s body, preventing pregnancy. Using a condom during sex can also reduce the risk of people getting infections from sex (sexually transmitted infections - STIs).
Use the Busy Bodies resource to explain further.
10. What does heterosexual mean?
A person who is attracted to the opposite sex, as when a boy is attracted to girls or vice versa.
11. What does gay mean?
Somebody may call themselves ‘gay’ if they are attracted to someone of the same sex. For instance a boy likes other boys or a girl likes other girls in a way that they might want to be boyfriend or girlfriend. Girls who are gay often prefer to be called lesbian.
If you think it might be an issue, you might add, "It’s not okay to use the word ‘gay’ as an insult".
12. What does bisexual mean?
That a person can be attracted to both men and women.
13. What is gender identity?
Most children are very clear that they are a boy or a girl. That is the way the feel about themselves inside; it’s their gender identity. It usually, but not always, fits with the sex they were assigned (given) at birth based on their genitalia.
14. What does transgender mean?
Transgender is when a person’s gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned (given) at birth. For example, someone may be born with a penis and other male genitalia and be described as a boy but they feel like they are a girl. Some people feel that they are neither a boy nor a girl or that they are both a boy and a girl or that their gender identity changes (gender fluid).
Questions about puberty
On average, girls start puberty at 11 years of age and boys start around 12 years of age. Anywhere between the ages of 8 and 14 is normal. Some children start earlier and later than this. If your child starts significantly earlier or later than the average, it may be just due to their individual growth pattern, they should be checked out by their GP to rule out any underlying issue.
At different stages of puberty, your child might be more or less advanced in the process than some other children in their class, so they may need reassurance that everyone grows and changes at their own pace.
You can also reduce any confusion and anxiety by taking the lead in talking to your child about the changes that they will experience, well before they happen.
They will need details on the physical and psychological changes of puberty so prepare yourself with knowledge of the books, videos and online materials available. There are many good free resources you can use, one of which is the HSE’s Busy Bodies DVD and booklet. This is available at www.healthpromotion.ie.
Questions about sexual activity
Questions about sexual activity are probably some of the most dreaded questions for parents. If your child has asked you any of these, well done! You are obviously an “askable” parent. It’s great that you will get a chance to give your child this information rather than your child accessing it during an unsupervised search on the internet!
Before you launch into your response, gently check what your child is really asking and what they already know, e.g. “Can you tell me a little more about what you are asking?”, “What do you already know about this?”, “That’s an interesting question - what brought that to mind?”
Questions about your personal sexual experience
Most parents fear being asked questions about their own sexual activity, especially as their children get older. Consider in advance what you consider appropriate to share about your sexual activity with your child. Everyone has the right to privacy about their intimate sexual lives, including you!
To set a gentle but clear boundary, you might say: It’s natural to be curious about people’s sex lives, but everyone has the right to decide how much of their private lives they want to talk about with other people. I’m really happy to talk in general about sex, but I won’t be discussing my sex life.
Questions about sexual orientation and gender identity
Sexual orientation describes who people are attracted to.
Gender identity describes a person’s sense of themselves, most often as male or female, but this can also as a blend of both genders or neither which is known as being non-binary or gender fluid. It can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.
Many children have questions around sexual orientation and gender identity as they get older and some may also be questioning their own orientation or gender identity. In Ireland, 12 is the most common age for young LGB people to identify their orientation.
Most children have a stable sense of their gender identity by the age of four so the small minority who will identify as Transgender often know quite early on that their physical sexual characteristics and their sense of gender identity are not the same.
Homophobia and Transphobia
Homophobia describes a dislike of, or prejudice against, lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and Transphobia describes a dislike of, or prejudice against, Trans people. Bullying based on prejudice or discrimination towards LGBT people can occur and have a serious impact on the mental health of young LGBT people.
As a parent, it’s important to challenge homophobic and transphobic bullying and teach your child that everyone is equal, no matter how they identify. Many children use phrases like, “this is gay”, “you’re so gay”, etc., often without knowing the impact it can have on a young LGBT person.
If you feel that your child may be questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity and would like to learn how to support them, check out the parent resources at www.belongto.org.