How To Discuss Consent With Your Kids
The past few years have been filled with stories about consent – between the Me Too movement, Brock Turner case and the Brett Kavanaugh hearing – this topic was front and center in many of our minds. For those of us with tweens and teens, consent takes on a whole new meaning as we think about our sons and daughters dating, going to parties, and making choices without us.
We all think about the “birds and the bees” talk with our kids – perhaps you’ve already had it – but outside of discussing the act of sex, it’s so important to incorporate the topic of consent into these conversations as well.
To help guide us in this sensitive conversation, we spoke with one of our Advisory Panel experts, Dr. Matt Hersh, a clinical psychologist with a focus on mindfulness, who answered our top four questions on this topic.
Q: What are some ways parents can start conversations around consent with their kids?
To initiate productive conversations with your children about sexual contact consent, it’s helpful to know where you stand on the issue. This doesn’t mean that you need to have all aspects of this issues sorted out, but being clear with yourself about your own sexual history (whether positive, negative, or both), your own judgments, and your own opinions means that you’ll likely be clearer, more compassionate, and more direct with your children.
Beyond that important work of self-reflection, you can broach the issue with your children either through being purposefully curious about what you see on TV, in books, and in the media or by more directly talking with your child about their own ideas and experiences around sexual contact in general. How you approach your child very often depends on who your child is and what developmental stage they inhabit. So having a sense for the most productive “opening” approach with your child might require a bit of thoughtfulness, some trial and error, and a lot of patience and curiosity about what their experience and ideas are like. Putting your judgments and opinions on hold temporarily gives your child the chance to explore the issue with greater freedom and less shame.
Parents will also want to readily acknowledge with their children a few basic facts. First, ideally, sex can be a pleasurable, joyful, and connecting activity. It’s important to highlight this so that the discussions around risks and consent don’t overwhelm this vital aspect of human development and functioning. Second, when teens have feelings for or are sexually attracted to someone, their ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors (including sexual exploration) can be compromised. Teens, by definition, are in a developmental exploratory phase while also being in the process (over the next many years) of developing their frontal lobes and their capacity to manage their emotions and behaviors and to make healthy decisions (especially when emotions are running hot). So, it’s extremely wise to help them set boundaries and safety expectations for themselves before they wind up in a tough spot or in the heat of the moment. Third, it’s very important to help your children appreciate the fact that when alcohol or other substances are involved, judgment is necessarily compromised. With substances in their bodies, depending of course on the amount, their inhibitions will likely be lowered, their usual respect for their own integrity may be compromised, and they may be more willing or likely to engage in acts than if they didn’t have any substance in their system.
Parents will also be wise to let their children know that sexual activity is by nature sexual, but it also involves dynamics of power between the people involved. So if you have a child who is typically more forceful or even aggressive with friends or strangers, or who has grown up in an environment where inappropriate power over others is (actively or passively) permitted, this can be a set-up for that child transferring this power dynamic into sexual activity. The rights of the other person consenting may not even be on that child’s mind. It’s therefore especially important to broach these pitfalls with that particular child. Conversely, for the child who is overly agreeable and often giving into others demands too easily, it’s important for parents to help that child raise awareness of their right to say no and to respect their emotions, minds, and bodies as much as any other child would do.
In any case, let your children know that they can always come to you for support and help if and when they need it. Help them understand that even if they have an unwanted sexual experience that it isn’t because they are bad. That’s a set up for shame in the future. Rather, it can be couched as a really hard situation that can be prevented in the future by discussing the roles each person played and the context in which the unwanted sexual activity came about.
Q: Do you have any messaging suggestions – e.g. specific words or phrases to avoid and/or to use in the conversation?
Although it’s usually useful to avoid words like “always” and “never” when talking to your children, when it comes to your pre-teen and teen’s consenting to engage in sexual contact with someone, it’s actually helpful to use those all or nothing words. For example, after discussing the issue for a little while you could say “If you ever feel uncomfortable or not sure you really want to move forward, please know you can always stop and always make sure you say ‘stop.’ This is your right. You never have to do something sexually that you don’t want to do or haven’t fully thought through.”
It’s also useful to avoid language that implies that consent is optional. For example, it’s wise to avoid saying something like “sometimes you just won’t be totally comfortable, or sometimes the other person might push things forward a bit, even if you’re reluctant. That’s OK. That happens.” Parents want to be as clear as possible to give permission to their children and encourage their children to grant permission to themselves to stop any sexual act when they feel hesitant or intuitively feel they need to.
But it’s not just about the position your child might be in as they are is trying to figure out how to say no or yes - how to stand up for their right to be and to feel safe. It’s also about your child who might be the one pushing sexual contact forward despite the other person not being comfortable or even as they say no. So it’s equally important for parents to be very clear with their sons (as is usually the case) that it’s “never OK to push someone into sex or sexual activity if they don’t want to move forward. If you hear the word ‘no’ or ‘I’m actually not sure right now’, then let that be a clear sign to stop and re-assess things.” Beyond that, although that’s a very good direct and clear starting point, parents can also help their children to appreciate how to read the more nuanced gestures of hesitation and doubt so that they’re truly acting as empathic and kind human beings.
Q: How does the conversation differ if you have a son vs. a daughter, and/or child who identifies as LGBTQ?
Conversations will likely differ between sons and daughters, but this will likely differ based on your child’s personality, gender identity and sexual orientation, sense of empowerment, previous experiences of power dynamics, etc. When children identify as LGBTQ (and even when they don’t), gender identities, “usual” gender roles, and sexual expression are not necessarily how we might expect https://www.talkwithyourkids.org/es/lets-talk-about/5-tips-talking-your-lgbtq-child-about-sexual-health.html) . So it’s extremely important for parents of LGBTQ children to discuss sexual exploration, activity, and consent in explicit terms, with parents deeply listening to what their child’s experience is like at any given time over the course of their adolescence. Even if your son or daughter leans more strongly toward the heterosexual and cis-gendered end of the continuum, it’s still important to be open to your child’s unique experience, understanding, and perception of themselves as sexual beings and the expectations and assumptions of how sexual interactions go.
Acknowledging of course the stereotypical assumptions in the risks and issues of how boys vs. girls might express their sexual and power behavior, parents’ message will likely differ. Boys generally need to discuss and reflect on what it’s like to feel like they’re “supposed to” be the ones “in control”, initiating and guiding sexual activity. That’s not always the case, of course, but that cultural expectation can shape the way boys believe they may need to act with girls. It’s imperative that parents communicate with their boys around issues of power and strength differences, respect, and truly following the lead of the girl. However, it’s equally important to let boys (especially more agreeable and sensitive ones) that they too can say “no” – that if he doesn’t feel comfortable moving forward, he too has the right and freedom to slow things down or completely stop the sexual activity.
Girls unfortunately can learn early on, depending on familial, cultural, and peer-based messages, that they should please others to be liked, to get along, or to get ahead. This is of course a set-up for risk of being taken advantage of sexually. It’s vital for parents to help their daughters grow to appreciate that their worth is not dependent upon agreeableness or acquiescing to someone else’s wishes, needs, or demands. Having discussions of self-worth, their basic human rights to say no when they need and want, and issues of how power is expressed sexually can be extremely important for girls’ psychological and physical safety.
Ultimately, for both boys and girls, parents can encourage the notion of pleasure and togetherness with the bottom line of respect for the self and the other. These conversations may not be easy for parents or children, but they are necessary given the forces at play that push and pull kids in directions that may be unwanted.
Q: What can parents do to alleviate fears for their kids around consent – e.g. a daughter worrying she'll be sexually assaulted vs. a boy worrying he'll be wrongly accused?
If a daughter is worrying about being sexually assaulted, the good news at least is that this child is aware of the risks of more aggressive power differences expressed through sexual action. Ultimately, prevention is the best intervention - awareness of risky situations, your daughter’s own self-respect and deep belief in her own unconditional self-worth, and staying in close proximity to supportive friends. But this doesn’t mean that nothing unwanted will ever happen. And because of that, it’s vital that daughters also understand that it’s ultimately never their fault if someone aggresses against them through sexual assault.
Here are some statistics that can help families to bolster the prevention efforts. Most (92% of) sexual assaults on girls/women are perpetrated by an intimate partner or an acquaintance (https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics). This highlights the importance of helping daughters to navigate their more everyday interactions with male friends, boyfriends, and boys with whom they are desire to simply ‘hook up’. Helping daughters to recognize some of the warning signs of an assaultive individual can also be very helpful, although this is by no means an exhaustive list or is ultimately fail-proof. Warning signs include boys/men who try to act overly flattering to get the girl’s guard down, test sexual boundaries to learn what’s sexually possible, “keep the drinks coming” to render the girl less in control over their own faculties, and/or try to separate the girl from a group (https://apps.carleton.edu/dos/sexual_misconduct/prevention/get_involved/green_dot/signs/). After an assault, these assaultive boys/men may overly justify, brag about their actions, or gaslight the victim of the (attempted) assault.
Boys/men are actually not wrongly accused very often. The “false positive” rate is quite low, between 2-10%, and a Boston area study found a rate of 5.9% of false sexual assault reports. These false reports often get over-dramatized in the news, and so if one happens it can skew the perception of the actual low occurrence of this event.
In fact, sexual assault is the most underreported crime, with 63% of sexual assaults never reported to the police (https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics). It’s vastly more likely that a girl will never report a sexual assault than it is for a boy to be wrongly accused. So, we can allay the fears of boys who legitimately worry about this. However, we can raise in boys’ consciousness the fact that they need to pay very close attention to how they are actually getting their needs met. Boys who feel powerless with friends, for example, may look to sexual interaction with girls for more control and power. Conversely, boys who are overly emboldened by their peers and even their parents (“boys will be boys”) to “do what they want” need some candid discussions with parents. Either way, boys under or over-expressing their power can benefit from work with a licensed professional who can help them meet their needs and get along interpersonally in more civil and respectful ways.
We can’t thank Dr. Matt Hersh enough for his phenomenal advice to start this conversation. Have you spoken with your children about consent? We’d love to hear your thoughts and advice on this as well!
WRITTEN BY PHASE2PARENTING
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.