Four in ten 17-year-olds have not spoken to their parents about sex - new research.

New research from a joint ESRI/HSE Health and Wellbeing research programme analyses how young people receive information on sex and relationships. Using data from the Growing up in Ireland ’98 Cohort at 13 and 17 years of age, the research also examines the role of this information in shaping sexual behaviours among Irish adolescents.

The research finds that four in ten 17-year-olds have not spoken to their parents about sex and relationships.

In his opening address, Minister Feighan acknowledged the importance of the initiative, saying: “I am very pleased to launch this new report, which provides us with vital information on one of the most important elements of growing up. Evidence based information is vital to understanding emerging trends in sexual health and to ensuring that the supports we are providing for parents, children and young people have a firm foundation. I have no doubt that this study will make a very welcome contribution to our knowledge base here. I also want to welcome the books being launched today which will be a great help to parents in dealing with this most sensitive of subjects.”

With regard to learning about relationships and sex, key findings include:

  • At age 13, 55 per cent of young people reported that they had received relationships and sexuality education (RSE) at school, and this proportion had increased to 92 per cent by age 17.
  • There was significant variation in RSE receipt across individual second-level schools, supporting previous Irish research that finds that policy and leadership at the school level plays an important role in the timing of RSE provision.
  • At age 13, 45 per cent of young people reported that they had discussed sex and relationship issues with their parents. By age 17, this proportion had increased to just under 60 per cent. Young people who had better-quality relationships with their parents were more likely to talk to them about sex and relationships.
  • There was a clear gender divide in reports of ease of discussions with parents about sex; young women found it easier to talk to their mothers, while young men found it easier to talk to their fathers. However, nearly 60 per cent of young men found it difficult or very difficult to talk to their fathers about sex.
  • At age 13, parents/family were the main source of information about sex, but at age 17, friends were the most commonly cited source (at nearly 50 per cent).
  • At age 17, nearly a quarter of young men and 20 per cent of young women cited the internet/TV/films/books as their main source. Those who had poor-quality relationships with their peers were much more likely to rely on information from the internet/TV/films/books.

Key findings on sexual behaviours include:

  • At age 17, 33 per cent of young people reported having had sexual intercourse.
  • Nearly 90 per cent of young people who have had sexual intercourse reported using contraception when first having sex.
  • Nearly a quarter of young people expressed regret over the timing of first sex, and this proportion was substantially higher among young women (31 per cent) than young men (16 per cent).
  • Young people who had discussed sex and relationships with their parents at age 13 were significantly more likely to have used contraception at first sex.
  • In contrast, those mainly reliant on their friends as a source of information on sex had lower levels of contraceptive use at first sex.
  • For those that were sexually active, just under 80 per cent reported ‘always’ using contraception, and 56 per cent reported using a condom ‘all the time’.

Anne Nolan, a co-author of the report, commented: “The study findings show us that the quality of the relationship between parents and their children is a key determinant of whether discussions about sex and relationships take place and how easy young people find it to speak to their parents about sex. Initiatives to support parents in developing positive communication skills may be expected to have broader benefits in terms of discussions about sex and relationships.”

Emer Smyth, a co-author of the report, commented: ”A significant group of young people are not receiving information or advice on sex from their parents, making school-based relationships and sexuality education all the more important. The findings support the current move towards considering sexual wellbeing as part of broader school efforts to support young people’s wellbeing.”

Moira Germaine, Education and Training Manager from the Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme, HSE Health and Wellbeing commented: “What parents do matters; this is confirmed by the finding that parent - child communication about relationships and sexuality in the early adolescent years was associated with contraception use when the children became sexually active as young adults. Not only can parents have this specific protective influence, they can also help their child to develop all the attitudes, values and behaviours necessary for forming and maintaining healthy relationships, including, in adulthood, healthy sexual relationships”.

She continued, “Today the HSE SHCPP is introducing a range of resources to support parents in talking with their children about relationships, sexuality and growing up. The resources include the first three books of their parent guide series”:

Making the ‘Big Talk’ many small talks: 4-7 years (formerly released as ‘Talking to your young child about relationships, sexuality and growing up’)

Making the ‘Big Talk’ many small talks: 8-12 years

Making the ‘Big Talk’ many small talks: Healthy Ireland Library Collection – this lists the range of relationships and sexuality related resources available throughout all local libraries as part of the ‘HI at your library’ scheme.

The HSE SHCPP is also launching an updated version of ‘Busy Bodies’ a booklet about puberty and early adolescence for children’s use in the home and school.

The resources are available to order for free from and also for download from

Information to support parents is available at here.