How to Talk to Your Kids About Consent

By ASTROGLIDE Team Relationships

Sexual Assault Statistics

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), child protective services substantiates or finds strong evidence of child sexual abuse every eight minutes. Justice Department statistics reveal that nearly 20% of girls between the ages of 14 and 17 have been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. The National Sex Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) reports that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college.

Even more troubling, rape is the most underreported crime in the country, with 63% of sexual assaults going unreported, according to the NSVRC.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, and its purpose is to “engage the greater community in prevention efforts” by spreading information about sexual violence, identifying resources for victims and promoting discussions about issues related to sexual assault and abuse.

The statistics show that sexual assault is a problem that spans both genders and all age groups, which means parents should be proactive in talking to their kids about sex, consent, and related topics even from an early age.

Tips for Talking About Consent at Every Age

Rather than limiting discussions about sexuality and consent to a single “talk,” parents should maintain an ongoing dialogue with their kids as they age, adjusting the tone and content of the conversation as their sons and daughters mature and begin dating.

Talking About Consent with Very Young Children

Lisa McCrohan, a psychotherapist writing for Upworthy, says that teaching children about consent begins at birth and that parents should immediately begin communicating messages to their kids that reinforce their sense of self-concept and self-worth. These early messages about consent include:

Asking for Their Consent Often

McCrohan says that even little things, like asking permission to hold your child’s hand, count. “As parents,” she writes, “we want to be intentional about what we are doing and why we are doing it.”

Teaching Them That “No” Matters

“No means no” is a popular mantra in any discussion of sexual assault. For young children, it’s important to respect their desire to decline unwanted physical contact, whether it’s a hug or hand-holding. By acknowledging and respecting a child’s autonomy over his or her body from an early age, parents help shape their child’s “inner barometer” on what types of contact feel comfortable.

Communicate That a “Yes” Can Become a “No”

Just because a child invites contact at one point doesn’t mean it’s carte blanche for all contact all the time. McCrohan says it’s important to teach children to hit the pause button every once in a while to make sure they’re still okay with physical contact.

Let Children Know Their Feelings and Opinions Matter

McCrohan says it’s also important for parents to “seek to understand” their kids. Instead of telling children how they should feel, parents should ask their children to share their thoughts and emotions.

Keep “Regard” Foremost in Your Mind

Children may be small, but they have their own thoughts, bodies, and dreams. More than anything, they need to know they matter — a concept parents can reinforce by looking their child in the eye and asking for their child’s opinions.

How to talk to kids about consent

Talking About Consent with Middle-Grade Children

Hormones. Puberty. Braces. Problem Skin. School dances. The tween years — the preadolescent stage that spans ages eight to 12 — can be a tumultuous time for kids. It’s a stage when children are just beginning to interact with their peers in a sexually charged way.

Talk About Consent Early

Dr. Cora Breuner, head of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Adolescence, told US News that it’s better for parents to have a preemptive discussion about consent with their preadolescent children rather than a reactive one. “It should not be in the heat of the moment when they’re upset, but open conversation families have with their children when it’s calm and quiet.”

Discuss Specific Scenarios

Breuner also suggests using specific examples when talking to kids about sexual assault and consent. By giving children real-life scenarios, parents can help them practice how they would respond to a situation if it happened to them.

This is also an age when parents should begin discussing the definition of sex, which should include frank discussions of all types of intimate behavior, as well as comprehensive talks about sexual assault. Breuner states: “You don’t want your son or daughter to be a victim or an instigator.”

Give Them Space to Talk Privately with Trusted Health Providers

Parents should also be sensitive to the possibility that their child might feel more comfortable talking to a health provider, such as a pediatrician or family doctor. “The parent should be OK leaving the room and trusting that the pediatrician or whoever the health care provider is, whether it’s a nurse practitioner or physician or whoever, will have a conversation about safety.”

Talking About Consent with Teens

According to Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing comprehensive dating abuse programs to young people between the ages of 12 and 24, parents of teens should talk to their children about what a healthy versus an unhealthy intimate relationship looks like.

Even if you aren’t certain your teen is sexually active, it’s important to have this discussion early, as 85% of sexual assault victims are assaulted before age 25, and 40% of female sexual assault victims are assaulted before they turn 18.

Provide a Healthy Framing for Sex and Consent

Tips for discussing sexual assault and consent with teenagers include:

  • Acknowledging that sex can be an integral part of the dating experience, even if the teen is currently doing nothing more than kissing.
  • Teaching kids that sex can be pleasurable, but it can also be used as a tool to manipulate and control others.
  • Encouraging teens to assert their own sexual boundaries and to respect the boundaries set by their partners.
  • Explaining the warning signs of sexual abuse, such as a partner demanding explicit videos or photos, or a partner who attempts to pressure them into sex by telling them they’re immature.
  • Reminding them that the only form of consent is a “yes” and that sex without consent is assault.

There’s More than One Way to Say “No”

In addition to talking about what consent is, it’s equally important to talk about what consent isn’t. Teen Health Source has a helpful list of points that highlight what does not constitute consent:

  • “Not now” means no.
    “Maybe” and “maybe later” means no.
  • A person can’t consent to sex when they’re sleeping, unconscious or blacked out.
  • A person who is drunk or high can’t consent to sex.
  • Consent isn’t about forcing, shaming or begging a partner to have sex.
  • Consent is not really consent unless all parties involved are free to say no, maybe or maybe later without feeling coerced or forced.

Teach Them to Be a Force for Good

Break the Cycle also encourages parents to talk to their teens about the importance of bystander intervention, which involves a third party stepping up to prevent a sexual assault from occurring.

According to RAINN, bystander intervention doesn’t have to involve physically pulling a perpetrator of sexual violence off of a victim. Teens can make a positive difference in a variety of ways, from offering a ride home to a friend who’s had too much to drink to calling security personnel when they observe someone acting in a sexually aggressive way.

Talking About Consent with College-Age Children

Sexual assault on college campuses has dominated headlines in recent years. The following stats from RAINN highlight the pervasiveness of the problem:

  • 11.2% of all college students experience sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation.
  • In the undergraduate student population, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience sexual assault.
  • Among graduate students, 8.8% of females and 2.2% of males experience sexual assault.

College students are also much more likely to be a victim of sexual assault compared to non-students the same age.

  • Male college students are 78% more likely than non-students the same age to be sexually assaulted.
  • 21% of LGBTQ college students are victims of sexual assault, compared to 18% of non-student LGBTQ females and 4% of LGBTQ males.

Those statistics are bleak, but they illustrate just how important it is to reinforce the lessons you teach your children about consent before they go to college. Keep the communication lines strong, and let your college-bound child know that they can always come to you for support.

Discuss Drugs and Alcohol

Heather Corinna, the founder and director of the sex education and advice website Scarleteen, told Slate that it’s important to raise the subject of alcohol when speaking to college-age children about consent. “Everyone needs to know that when people are intoxicated, or otherwise less capable of sound judgment, sexual behavior will be, at best, super dicey. You’re walking into something that could potentially be criminal, even if that’s not your intent.”

Corinna says it’s also important to talk about how alcohol affects the body and to encourage young adults to hold off on sexual encounters until both partners are sober.

How to Ask for Consent

SexInfo, a resource developed by the University of California, Santa Barbara, stresses that it’s important for parents and educators to speak honestly about consent with young adults, who are likely to already be engaged in or exposed to sexual encounters.

Parents and teachers can help young people understand consent by giving examples of how to ask if a partner is willing to engage in sex:

  • “I’d really like to ____ with you. Would you like to?”
  • “Do you like it when I do this?”
  • “Is it OK if I take off your shirt/bra/top/boxers/pants?”
  • “Before we go any further, do you want to do this?”

By demystifying consent, parents and educators can help teens and college-age students understand why consent is important and how to ensure their partner is on board with intimacy.

Addressing Consent for LGBTQ Children

Although most public schools offer sex education to kids at some point in middle school, sex ed information and resources that address LGBTQ students are woefully scarce.

As Casey Quinlan, a policy reporter at ThinkProgress, wrote at The Establishment, “When we ignore these experiences, we do serious harm to LGBTQ survivors.”

Quinlan points out that this exclusion is particularly harmful, considering that members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than those outside the community. A survey from the Association of American Universities states: “Rates of sexual assault and misconduct are highest among undergraduate females and those identifying as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, questioning, and as something not listed on the survey.”

“But still,” Quinlan writes, “the conversation about campus rape centers on the assumption that the perpetrator is a cisgender heterosexual man and the survivor is a cisgender heterosexual woman.”

Where traditional sex ed fails, parents can step in. IMPACT, the LGBT Health and Development Program at Northwestern University, provides parents of LGBTQ teens with a list of resources for communicating with their children about their sexual health, consent, and safety.

Sex Positive Discussions Are Suitable for All Ages

As the American Academy of Pediatrics states, communicating sex-positive messages to children from an early age empowers them to grow up knowing “they deserve to have great sex” and to feel honored in their relationships. Kids who learn about sexual empowerment and consent from an early age grow up to be sexually empowered adults aware of their own boundaries, as well as those set by intimate partners.

How are you teaching your kids and teens about consent? Let us know @ASTROGLIDE.