How to talk about consent with your kids, from toddlers to teens

Experts share tips on talking to kids about consent. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Experts share tips on talking to kids about consent. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Consent can be a prickly topic in parenting circles. It was just a few years ago that an Australian sexuality expert sparked outrage and mockery after suggesting that parents ask their babies for permission (communicated via body language and eye contact) before changing a diaper. But while parenting experts have maintained that an infant doesn't yet have the cognitive development to understand or meaningfully grant consent, the ensuing years have been met with more acceptance for respecting the bodily autonomy and independence of children as young as toddlers.

As those toddlers grow into tweens and then teens, the seeds that have been planted in terms of not only protecting one's own comfort level, space and privacy, but also respecting others' boundaries as well, take on new importance. According to a 2021 report by the advocacy group SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), just 33 states and the District of Columbia mandate that sex education be taught in public schools; of those, only 13 require that consent be part of the curriculum. And with April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes a reminder that teaching young people to have a firm grasp of what consent is and isn't is hugely important — and not something that parents can simply expect to outsource to teachers.

But how should a parent tackle this topic in an age-appropriate way? Ahead, experts share their tips for teaching the building blocks of consent in young children, initiating more frank conversations post-puberty and modeling respectful behavior.

Introducing the concept of consent in young children

While waiting for a baby to give the green light on a diaper change may be impractical and even unhygienic, there are other ways parents can more effectively lay the groundwork for giving young children agency, especially when it comes to their bodies, says Kelly Nadel, a parent coach and psychotherapist who also serves as director of clinical training for Dr. Becky's Good Inside.

"It all starts with building circuits of self-trust, not self-doubt," Nadel tells Yahoo Life. "And this actually can start right away by validating your child’s experience. Every time you validate your child’s feelings or experience, you are essentially telling them that they know their body best and that they are good feelers of their feelings — and these are foundations for consent."

She points to a routine battle many parents may be familiar with: trying to get a kid who swears he's not cold to wear a coat on a chilly day. Rather than refusing to let him leave the house until he's suitably swathed in layers, the parent can instead help build "a child's sense of self-trust and their body autonomy" by offering a statement of validation such as, "You know your body best; I'll put the coat in your backpack in case you change your mind later." According to Nadel, this signals that the parent is trusting that the child knows his body, and feelings, better than anyone else.

Nadel also discourages pressuring kids to hug, kiss or touch anyone — parents included — if they don't feel comfortable. It's OK to say no to a cuddle from Grandma, or to offer a handshake or wave instead. Again, the message of "you know your body best" is one that is worth continuously stressing.

"Speak early and often about body sovereignty," Nadel says. "Within your family, validating a child’s emotions and experience sets the tone for consent because a child will always be getting the message that they know their body best."

Talking it out

Teaching kids that their instincts are valid and that they have agency is just one part of the equation. When it comes to the body — and sex, puberty and so forth — clear, candid conversations are the way forward, Nadel says.

"We want our children to learn about their bodies in an environment that is safe and loving," she explains. "So talking about this early, rather than having them learn from friends or the internet, has a huge impact on what they take away from the conversation. This way, we can correct misinformation and reduce feelings of confusion or shame because we want our child to feel they can always come to us with questions around their body and definitely around consent related to their body."

According to Nadel, who often fields questions from parents wondering when and how to discuss topics like menstruation or how babies are made, "there's no right age." Withholding information because we think the child is too young does them a disservice and implies that there's something shameful or uncomfortable about what the body does; it also makes it more likely that they'll seek out the information from another source. Her advice is to answer any questions a child has in a direct, matter-of-fact manner and to use "real words for body parts right away" rather than resort to infantile euphemisms.

"This massively reduces shame around these topics and when we reduce shame, we help kids make better decisions because kids feel comfortable expressing themselves instead of feeling like they’re doing something wrong," she notes.

Only 13 states require consent be covered in sex education. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Only 13 states require consent be covered in sex education. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Addressing the awkward factor

There's no guarantee that these conversations will be easy. Even as an adult, you may still cringe at the memory of the "birds and bees" talk your own parents gave, or remember turning beet-red during sex ed at school. Nadel says it's understandable to feel awkward about discussing consent and sex with young people. That doesn't mean it's acceptable to shirk that parental duty.

*If you’re uncomfortable with these topics, that’s OK!" Nadel says. "In fact, your honesty about that with your child will bring a truth and realness to the conversation that they are looking for. [Say] something like, 'You know, this is new for me. No one in my family ever talked to me about these things and so if I seem a bit nervous, it’s not because your curiosity is wrong — in fact, it's great — and it's just new for me to talk about these things! I’m not exactly sure how to start, but I want you to know that we can talk about topics like private parts and how babies are made. We will figure it out as we go.'"

In many cases, it may be the child who is experiencing discomfort. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of adolescents, tells Yahoo Life that parents shouldn't "let the expressions of embarrassment deter" them from speaking candidly. That said, she advises striking up such a conversation in a safe, private environment that will help put the child more at ease. Her tips: No audience. Allow for frequent pauses and room to ask questions. No admonishment or punishing talk. And above all else, "take them seriously."

Another option is to consider an alternate form of communication. Nadel has seen parents pass a journal back and forth, answering in writing any questions their embarrassed child has put down on paper to spare themselves an in-person conversation while still getting the information across.

Continuing the conversation through puberty and beyond

It's one thing for a kid to learn about periods and body hair and intercourse; it's another for them to actually go through it first-hand. As children age and go on to experience puberty, first crushes, romantic relationships and so on, dialogues about sex and consent should similarly evolve, says Greenberg.

"This is not a one-time conversation," she says, adding that parents should maintain an open line of communication with their kids and check in regularly, particularly around milestones like getting their period for the first time or starting to date. The latter in particular is a good opportunity for parents to initiate a conversation about consent and refresh an older child's understanding of what it entails.

"Speak to them about what consent means," says Greenberg. "And what consent means is giving a voice to their feelings. It doesn't mean a gesture. It doesn't mean a thought. It means actually saying out loud to your partner what you are comfortable with and what you're not comfortable with. And it also means respecting what your partner is comfortable with."

Her advice for teens is the same regardless of gender: Ask for permission, don't make assumptions about what someone wants, and talk openly about your comfort level. It's natural to have sexual desires at this age, but one should never feel pressured to act on those feelings if they aren't ready.

"Another thing is [to let them know] they're always free to change their minds," she adds. "For example, if they initiate an activity like intercourse, and then they start to get anxious or uncomfortable, they're always allowed to change their mind. Once something is initiated, it doesn't mean they have to take it to conclusion."

Like Nadel, Greenberg says it's best to speak plainly and without judgment. A teen who is sexually active, for example, is bound to clam up if their parent gets angry or punishes them.

"I know this is really going to be difficult for parents, but it's important not to make the situation about yourself and your own emotions, because you'll never get a second first chance," Greenberg says. "Your reaction to what has happened to your child will help predict the psychological outcome. Kids who have parents who are supportive and listen do better in terms of experiencing less depression and anxiety than kids whose parents responded with blame and judgment."

In short, don't put a kid on the defensive, but communicate clearly that there are lines that can't be crossed in terms of other people's boundaries. And as far as their own boundaries, it may be helpful to talk through scenarios of how to respond if someone is violating their consent and they need to get out of an unsafe situation. Ultimately, Greenberg says a parent's goal is to be a supportive sounding board who can stress the seriousness of consent and make their teens feel more confident going into the world.

Practicing what you preach

One last thing to bear in mind: how you and the other adults in your child's life appear to treat the idea of consent and sexual politics, especially in the era of #MeToo. Does the "boys will be boys" mindset rule? Is Dad always cracking jokes about the latest sexual harassment scandal to hit the news? Does the family show respect for each other's boundaries?

"Anything that is dismissive about body consent and sovereignty sends the wrong message: the dangerous message that other people can make decisions about your body," Nadel says of the importance of setting an appropriate example for kids. "This is the opposite of what we want all kids to internalize as they navigate relationships and their bodies in the world."

Greenberg agrees, noting that sex should be discussed in a respectful manner — "not flippant."

"Take a look at your own attitudes and how you talk about sexuality in your household and how you talk about every other topic," she says. "If you are respecting people's boundaries in all other areas and then you talk to your kids about boundaries and their sexual relationships, it'll make sense to them. So you should model respect — not only about sexual topics, but also about other topics."

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