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How to Talk to Your Teen About Consent

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

The #MeToo movement brought to light the alarming frequency of sexual assault cases in the U.S. and around the world. The phenomenon was instigated by several high-profile women who alleged equally high-profile men sexually assaulted them.

Naturally, the national conversation turned to the issue of consent.

Teaching Children About Consent

Though teaching your teen about consent is particularly relevant when they start dating, it’s never too early to introduce the concept. Even when your child is young, you can discuss the concept of physical boundaries.

For example, let’s say your three-year-old wants to hug another toddler goodbye at the end of a playdate, but the other kid shrugs away.

Explain to your child that “Benjy doesn’t want a hug right now.”

Encourage your child, at any age, to ask before offering a hug or kiss to a friend.

This kind of conversation is as – if not more – important when it comes to aggressive childhood behavior.

For example, let’s say you witness your seven-year-old about to hit or push another child. After intervening and pulling them aside, you can elaborate on the idea of appropriate touch. This includes not hurting others with our hands and only touching others when they are receptive to it. Of course, you need to tailor the conversation to your specific child’s age and understanding.

When They Start Dating

When your adolescent starts dating, it’s time to be more direct with them. Though the content of your conversation may differ based on your parenting views, every parent needs to have this talk with their child.

Some parents may not expect their teen to engage in premarital sex at all. In fact, in certain households, premarital sex and even certain forms of intimacy are taboo. Some traditional parents will never leave their teen alone in a private room with their girlfriend/boyfriend, let alone allow them to spend the night. And other parents won’t allow their teen to have a boyfriend or girlfriend at all until they’ve reached a certain age or stage.

The consent conversation is still necessary for these families. But in this case, the conversation might revolve more around the ideas of mutual respect and proper treatment of others. For example, parents should warn their teenager never to ask or harass their romantic partner for nude pictures, whether it’s via text, IM, DM, Snapchat, or email. Sending and receiving naked pics of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to arrest. It is never okay to harass, coerce, or disrespect a romantic partner in this way.

It is never okay.

Parents need to also explain that teens shouldn’t go too far, too fast, with certain forms of affection if they aren’t sure the other person is receptive. For example, even a kiss on the cheek might not be welcome by the other person. Parents should encourage their teen to ask, first, before they offer a hug, kiss, or any other form of physical or nonverbal affection.

One last note: even if parents don’t want or expect their teen to experiment with sex, their teens aren’t always on the same page. Teens might go behind their parents’ back and experiment with sex no matter what their parents say.

That’s why the conversation about consent is important for all parents, conservative or not.

If You Think Your Teen Will Experiment With Sex

That brings us to our next group of parents: parents who expect their teen to experiment with sex. These families need to be even more proactive about the consent conversation.

In ongoing conversations about sex and sexuality, parents should emphasize that neither partner should pressure the other to move forward too fast. In general, if one partner feels the physical aspect of the relationship is moving too rapidly, they should communicate this clearly and not feel pressured to stay quiet or simply maintain the status quo.

Parents should emphasize that their teen should never feel pressured to do anything they don’t want to do. Not with a romantic partner or with a friend or peer. Not with anyone. They can always say no.

Friend casually kisses them on the cheek? If the teen is uncomfortable with that, they don’t have to tolerate it.

Peer casually holds them around the waist? Tell the teen to extricate themselves and tell their friend not to do it. If their friend doesn’t listen, and keeps doing it, then that could amount to harassment.

And, of course, your teenager should always ask, and receive a clear verbal yes, before initiating sex or being physically intimate with a partner. It doesn’t matter if the other person seems interested. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t explicitly tell you to stop. If you didn’t get a verbal, resounding “yes”, it could amount to sexual assault or even rape. This applies to both boys and girls alike.

This article from the Child Mind Institute offers some helpful questions teens should be asking their partner, and themselves, when being physically intimate:

  • Are you comfortable with me touching you here?
  • Are you enjoying yourself?
  • Are we moving too fast?
  • Are you still okay with this?

Additionally, talk to your teen about the influence of drugs or alcohol on a teen’s brain, and how it might impact the consent received. No matter what, someone who is intoxicated (or asleep) cannot give consent.

More Tips for This Talk

It’s important for this to be a discussion rather than a lecture. Especially if your teen spends lots of time on the internet– which is normal for a 21st-century kid. Use this conversation also as a springboard for discussion about pornography. If you suspect your teen has been watching porn, your teen may have preconceived misconceptions about sex, intimacy, and women. This is the time for you to gauge what they know and correct gaps or errors in their knowledge both for their health and their general understanding of sexuality.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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