With #MeToo stories continuing to make the news on a regular basis, it’s natural for parents to fret about the right or best way to talk to young people about the concept of consent and developing healthy romantic relationships. Is talking about consent enough? Do teens actually understand what it means to give or get consent before initiating sexual contact? What can parents actually do to help their kids stay safe?

Media portrayal of teens highlights hookup culture rife with drinking, drugs, and a complete disregard for consent. Both seasons of 13 Reasons Why include detailed sexual assaults and sexual encounters following heavy drinking. When parents watch shows like this with their teens, they can engage in conversation about what they’re seeing and what healthy relationships should look like. Parents can ask teens about their experiences and get a baseline for what their teens actually encounter day-to-day. When teens watch these shows independently, on the other hand, there’s a risk that they might very well internalize a very dangerous message: This is normal. Deal with it.

Media isn’t the only way teens digest mixed messages about relationships and consent. Many teens search the Internet for answers to their questions on the topic when they don’t feel like they have a supportive person to guide them through this period of growth and learning. Make no mistake, teens want guidance and support though many don’t ask for it.

Harvard Graduate School recently released a report out of its organization, the Making Caring Common Project. The report, titled The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment, explores questions of consent, healthy relationships, sexual harassment, and more, in depth and provides much-needed insight into how teens feel about the topic. Making Caring Common Project surveyed over 3,000 young adults and high school students.

Key data points include the following:

  • Respondents, aged 18-25 years old, revealed that a majority had never spoken with their parents about “being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex”(61%); assuring your “own comfort before engaging in sex” (49%); the “importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you”(56%); the “importance of not continuing to ask someone to have sex after they have said no” (62%); or the “importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex” (57%).
  • 58% of respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about the importance of “being a caring and respectful sexual partner.” Yet a large majority of respondents who had engaged in these conversations with parents described them as at least somewhat influential.
  • 70% of the 18 to 25-year-olds who responded reported wishing they had received more information from their parents about some emotional aspect of a romantic relationship.
  • 65% of respondents wished that they had received guidance on emotional aspects of romantic relationships in a health or sex education class at school.
  • 76% of survey respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.

This report shed critical light on this complex issue teens face. Teens are largely unprepared for, and anxious about developing, romantic relationships and they feel like they’re on their own in trying to figure it out. It also showed that misogyny and sexual harassment appear to be pervasive among teens, but very few receive any guidance about how to avoid acting in this manner. 

How to Talk About Consent

It’s imperative that parents talk about the concept of consent and revisit it regularly. Though these conversations can feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, they play an integral role in helping teens understand and internalize the importance of respect and caring in romantic relationships.

Ideally, conversations about consent should begin long before high school, but it’s always a good time to begin.

Step One: Discuss Boundaries

Consent is steeped in personal boundaries, but many teens struggle to establish and maintain healthy boundaries with their peers.

Teens need to learn that they define their own personal boundaries, others need to respect them (as they need to respect the boundaries established by their peers), and they have the right to change their boundaries. In fact, it’s perfectly normal for boundaries to shift during the course of a romantic relationship or friendship.

It helps to give examples. Perhaps a teen is comfortable holding hands and hugging in the beginning phase of a relationship, but isn’t ready for kissing or touching. That’s a boundary. As the relationship progresses and trust builds, that teen might shift the boundaries a bit to include kissing. Here’s the catch: Boundaries can shift, but they can also be revoked. If, at any point, a teen experiences discomfort, that teen can redefine the boundaries again.

It’s also important to discuss what it looks like when one partner crosses the boundaries of another. Is it ever okay to kiss someone who clearly stated that he or she isn’t interested? What about hugging? If one partner sets a holding hands boundary, when is okay to move toward hugging?

Step Two: Define Consent

Consent is more than simply saying “yes” to something. Consent must be given without feeling pressured and in a clear state of mind. Consent cannot be given if one partner is intoxicated. Bottom line: Consent is always freely given and all people in a sexual situation must feel that they are able to say “yes” or “no” to stop the sexual activity at any given point.

Helpful talking points:

  • Consent is a process between two people
  • Consent is specific to each activity
  • Consent can be given or retracted at any time
  • Consent can only be given in a clear mindset
  • Consent is ongoing
  • Both partners need to feel safe and comfortable
  • Consent does not exist if pressure or coercion are used to gain it

Parents also need to talk about the differences between verbal and nonverbal consent. While some people rely on nonverbal cues like eye contact and facial expressions during romantic encounters, this can be tricky. It’s helpful to talk about consent and boundaries before sexual contact begins to have a clear plan in place.

Verbal consent is best because it gives each partner a chance to state their needs and desires clearly. Young people can learn to ask, “Do you want to…” or “Is this okay with you” regularly during sexual activity to be certain that each partner is comfortable.

Step Three: Discuss Respect and Trust Building

Between television, movies, and social media, relationships appear to move very quickly from the outside looking in, but teens need to understand and learn that real romantic relationships rely on respect and trust, and this takes time.

Ask your teens to think of scenarios where they are in the position of needing to respect the personal boundary of a partner. It can be difficult to feel rejected. If one teen wants to move from kissing to intimate touch but the other doesn’t, how can teens communicate in a loving and respectful way without using pressure or coercion?

Step Four: Help Your Teen Talk Specifics

Romantic relationships and sexual activity are confusing at times. Teens might feel ready to engage in sexual activity one moment, but completely unprepared in another. Teens need to talk through specific scenarios to consider what they are ready for and where they want to set their boundaries.

Though these conversations can be difficult to initiate because both teens and parents are likely to have emotional responses to the content, parents can help guide teens by engaging in open and honest communication. Details matter. Simply defining consent and walking away won’t help teens learn how to navigate romantic and sexual relationships. Talking about different scenarios and what language to use will.

Last Updated: Feb 1, 2020