What Is Consent and How to Talk About It With Kids

Talking about consent can seem complicated, but it's a necessary addition to the sex talk.

Originally Published: 
Black and white photo of a teen dad looking at his father while he talks

The sex talk with kids is imperative but so is making sure make sure they understand consent. That’s always been true, even before the #MeToo movement placed the long, awful history of sexual assault on the front page. So how do we talk with our kids about consent so that they understand what is consent, respect other people’s boundaries, and know how to advocate for their own?

What Is Consent?

The anti-sexual violence organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) defines consent broadly as “an ongoing process of discussing boundaries and what you’re comfortable with.” Pertaining specifically to sex, they clarify that consent is “an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity” that is both “clearly and freely communicated.” They also note that unequal power dynamics in a relationship can prevent one from freely giving consent.

There are also legal considerations pertaining to the age at which one is deemed able to provide consent. But the age of consent in the US varies state-to-state from 16 to 18. “Parents are put in this odd position as if their legislator is an adolescent psychologist, which of course the person is not,” says psychoanalyst Dr. Laurie Hollman. “So they can’t depend on state law to guide them. And while it might be quite natural to see what the age of consent is, that’s not the guideline. The guideline is child development.”

How Do I Talk to My Teen About Consent?

Dr. Hollman admits that these are challenging conversations for parents to have with their kids. “It’s certainly very delicate and has to be talked about with tremendous respect. I would underline that 100 times,” she says. “The child has to feel respected.”

One of the first challenges parents will need to undertake involves coming to a common understanding of what different words mean. “If you’re discussing harassment versus consent, when you introduce the word harassment they may say ‘Oh, I know already,” Hollman explains. “So ask them what it means. Not in a critical way, but respectfully so you can find out what language they use and what they know about it.”

As hard as it can be for parents to initiate these conversations with their children, it can be just as difficult for them to patiently leave space to hear from their child. “Listen as long as needed before giving your own opinions, so the teenager has time to carefully think about these very complicated questions,” Hollman encourages. “Wait, step back, don’t interrupt. It’s so tempting to interrupt because you just want to make sure you have faith, but that interruption actually raises anxiety.”

Because of how immense and intense the topic is, Hollman suggests parents see these as ongoing conversations throughout the teenage years. If you’re having a hard time figuring out where to start, she offers some conversation starters:

How to Start the Consent Talk

  • Define sexual harassment and make a list of actions that could be considered harassing.
  • Discuss what it looks like to be pressured by peers or predatory adults.
  • Examine the differences between showing affection and harassing a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Dr. Hollman also suggests that parents frame these discussions as an opportunity to think through challenging situations in a safe environment. Although teenagers are able to navigate increasingly complex problems, their brains don’t fully mature until they are 25.

“Thus, in the preteen years before kids can handle more mature discussions, it’s possible to lay a foundation with conversations about what they can do when they feel pressured or stressed.” Hollman says. “You want them to know what to do ahead of time so that when they’re under stress they already have an answer to questions they might face.”

The practice of considering and rehearsing stressful situations before encountering them could come in handy for parents of teens. Especially those who break out in a cold sweat at the thought of having these conversations with their kids.

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