How to Talk About Consent with Kids, According to a Sex Therapist

Start early and do it often

how-to-talk-about-consent: a mother and daughter talking.
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Consent is a core concept when it comes to having healthy, respectful relationships…but what is consent, exactly, and how do you broach the subject with your kids? While it might feel awkward (I know it does when I think about having the convo with mine!), it doesn’t need to be—and the more comfortable you make yourself with the subject, the more comfortable your child will be giving and denying consent when you’re not around. With that in mind, here’s an expert guide on how to talk about consent with kids from toddlerhood to the teen years. (Spoiler: The key is to do it early and often.)

Meet the Expert

Dr. Nan Wise is a certified sex therapist, relationship specialist, neuroscience researcher, and author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. She has garnered international recognition for her research that addresses gaps in the literature regarding the neural basis of human sexuality.

What Is Consent?

Dr. Wise maintains that consent is when a person “makes a conscious and unambiguous decision regarding what they are willing to participate in, whether it’s related to mutually agreed-upon sex [or anything else having to do with their bodies.]”

“When a person gives consent, it needs to come from a voluntary positive place without being forced or coerced,” she continues. But here’s the clincher: It also needs to be understood to be revocable. “Consent can be withdrawn at any point, and the sexual activity [or any other activity being suggested] needs to stop immediately,” explains Dr. Wise. Consent can be given (or revoked) verbally with a clear statement, or it can be given non-verbally (i.e., a head nod or a thumbs up). That said, Dr. Wise emphasizes that “it’s important to remember if the consent is communicated nonverbally that both parties are clear on what’s being communicated since how people read body language may differ.”

Getting permission for one kind of sex activity does not mean that you’re consenting to all kinds of activities. It’s best to ask for consent directly and clearly. And it’s also important to respond to the request for consent clearly and unambiguously. 

Parents can teach children about consent when they teach them about their bodily autonomy, which makes it clear that children can decide who touches them and when.

What Is Not Consent?

First and foremost, it’s important to note that “getting permission for one kind of sex activity does not mean that the person is consenting to all kinds of activities,” says Dr. Wise. Other examples of situations that to do not qualify as consent include 

  • A person wearing revealing clothes
  • A person physically resisting an activity but without saying the word ‘no’
  • A person flirting with you
  • You think a person is acting like they enjoy the activity
  • A person giving consent to an activity and then changing their mind once it has begun. (It’s revocable, remember?)

“The most important [thing] is that this type of conversation should happen numerous times as a child grows and develops and should be updated and expanded in age-appropriate ways,” says Dr. Wise. In other words, this is not a one-and-done conversation, so start getting really comfortable with the topic.

This is easy to do if you introduce the concept of consent to kids at a very young age and just allow the conversation to evolve naturally. For young kids, Dr. Wise recommends educating friends and families about respecting children’s boundaries, as well as teaching young kids that if someone attempts to violate their bodily autonomy—even with something as seemingly innocent as a hug when the child isn’t in the mood for one—or tries to touch them in a private area, it isn’t their fault and they need to immediately report this to a trusted adult. (I know I have had to have the consent talk with my in-laws when they used to have the habit of demanding physical affection from my kids.) As previously mentioned, these conversations should start early: “begin by teaching the correct vocabulary for body parts and focusing on communicating the concepts of bodily autonomy and independence,” says Dr. Wise.

As children get older, we can expand the conversation with updated reminders that apply to a wide variety of situations. Explain that hugs between friends and family members are fine but not obligatory, while hugs from complete strangers are not OK; also explain, for example, that rough-and-tumble play with a friend is OK, provided that both parties have agreed to it and are enjoying it.

Per the expert, “by the time children reach elementary and middle schools, parents can continue helping them feel more comfortable about healthy boundaries regarding physical touch and emotions.” (Yep, let’s not forget that feelings play a significant role in consent.)

As kids reach the teen years, Dr. Wise stresses the importance of “educating children in a way that offsets sexism and misogyny…by stamping out harmful narratives, like that men should always want sex and will always push boundaries or that women are gatekeepers rather than equal sexual beings with their own wants and desires.” By doing this, you are clarifying the consent process, she says—namely because “these distorting gender roles and sexual scripts complicate and muddy the consent process and can be harmful to a person’s ability to give good consent.”

When talking about consent with teenagers, it’s really important to encourage them to explore their values in their decision-making rather than lecture them. “They especially need us to continue to be an askable parent so that they’ll be willing to come to us,” explains Dr. Wise. adding that at this stage, parents will be able to start addressing more complex issues and making sure that both males and females get enough information to prevent their rape and assault rather than just assuming that rape and assault happens to females only. 

“This kind of disaster prevention sex education is really important, and gives parents the opportunity to make clear that consent cannot be given when substances or alcohol have been consumed because substances affect a person’s ability to make judgments.”

How Do You Ask for Consent?

Teaching kids how to ask for consent depends on their age. But in general, asking for consent should be done very simply and clearly. For example. You can ask “Can I _____?” or “Do you want me to ____ ?” and listen carefully for the answer.

Indeed, Dr. Wise tells me that teens should be taught that asking for consent works best when you’re paying attention to the partner's response. “Tell them, for example, that if someone says yes, but they aren't clearly comfortable, you need to check in again and say, ‘I want to make sure you want to do this’ or ‘should I keep going?’” Needless to say, this also provides a perfect opportunity to remind teenagers that they can say no or change their minds at any time.

Summary: Why Is it Important to Talk About Consent?

“Communicating about sex helps people have good boundaries and good connections,” explains Dr. Wise, and that communication should start happening well before sex is even on your kid’s radar. Per the expert, difficulty talking about sex is the number one sexual problem, which is why it’s so important to lean into these conversations and show kids that it’s OK to think about these issues and make decisions about what they’re comfortable with. “This ongoing communication connection with us as parents and eventually for them with their partners is the foundation of relational and sexual well-being.” 

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