How to talk to children, tweens, and teens about consent and establishing their own boundaries
As parents, we naturally try to compensate for our kids’ shortcomings. My son is painfully shy around people he doesn’t know, a fact I often tell people before they have a chance to make assumptions about him. However, with family I tend to compensate in the other direction and insist that my son give Aunt So-and-So a hug when we leave family events. However, I recently learned this is not recommended as a parenting technique: Our kids need to learn consent and how to set boundaries themselves. Though you can guide them, they will ultimately have to decide for themselves. If my son doesn’t want to give his aunt a hug, then she will just have to accept that—and so will I.
Here are some helpful tips for discussing consent with your kids and helping them to establish their own boundaries.
Talking to Young Children About Consent
Teach “no” and “stop”. Empower your children to say no when they don’t want to have physical contact with another person, including relatives. “When kids can speak up about what kind of play and affection is and is not okay with them, even under emotional pressure to please someone, they are far better prepared to handle sexual pressure as they get older,” says Irene van der Zande, founder of Kidpower, a nonprofit that teaches kids and adults skills for child protection, positive communication, and personal safety.
Teach empathy. Very young children don’t understand their actions have consequences. Teach them that if they hit, the person they hit gets hurt. Ask them how they would feel if they were hit. Keep the tone kind and casual, so you don’t induce shame in your child.
Help children understand facial expressions and body language. Being able to read another person is a great way for children to understand consent and also to be able to react appropriately. They can learn to back off if they are overwhelming a friend or offer kind words if they notice a sibling is sad.
Help them recognize when something feels strange. Teaching kids to honor their gut instincts is a great way to teach consent and awareness. If something doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t. Teach your children to speak up in uncomfortable situations.
Talk to them on their level. When discussing issues like touching and consent with young children, keep conversations short, very focused, and to the point, says Lisa Cassidy, Ph.D., a psychologist who practices on Long Island.
Talking to Big Kids About Consent
Encourage kids to check in with each other during playtime. Imaginary worlds can sometimes be consuming to children at play, and it’s important to remind them to take a timeout now and again to make sure every one is okay.
Encourage your child to be more mindful. Did he see bullying on the playground? Did she say something hurtful unknowingly? Ask your kids how they would handle the situation differently next time. Also, this is a good age to discuss stranger safety, Dr. Cassidy says.
Don’t tease, even if you think it’s harmless. Children may start to develop crushes during this time, and it’s important to take your children’s emotions seriously. You can ask questions, but make sure your child feels comfortable enough to talk about it. “As children mature, open conversations are essential,” says Jeffrey Kassinove, Ph.D., clinical director at Therapy West in Manhattan. “Your child needs to feel that they won’t be judged by you. As they move into the pre-teen and teenager stage, emotions are strong. Teaching them about situations that can put them at risk is key.”
Reinforce the idea that your child’s behavior has an effect on others. And encourage her to help others when they can. This includes things as simple as noticing litter on the street, cleaning her room (and noticing what happens when she doesn’t), or sharing with a sibling. If your child learns the effect he has on his surroundings, he will be more inclined to make positive choices.
Talking to Teens About Consent
Build self-esteem. As kids grow, they become more self-conscious and fall into the habit of comparing themselves to their peers or to images on social media (thanks, Instagram!). Continue to remind her that she is special and unique. Highlight his talents and accomplishments and remember to keep an eye out for signs of bullying.
Nix “locker room” talk. While this phrase has gotten a lot of press lately, it’s important to teach our children that offensive and disrespectful talk is unacceptable even in private. Remind your teenagers that words carry weight and talking about people like they are objects can have some serious repercussions and leave badly hurt feelings in its wake.
Discuss changing hormones. Teens’ bodies go through a lot of changes. Some can be scary and unusual, so tell your teen that as embarrassing as it may be, she can always come to you with questions about her body.
Set expectations about drinking and partying. Set clear boundaries. Let your child know that you do not want him drinking or doing drugs but you understand that there will be parties. Loading your child with information about drugs and alcohol will be the best defense. Explain how behaviors change when a person gets inebriated and that defenses go down. Explain that someone who is impaired by drugs or alcohol is not capable of making decisions about whether to be kissed or touched—and drunkenness or being high is certainly no excuse for someone to be physically aggressive or to try to push them to have unwanted physical contact. Empower her to not fall victim to peer pressure.
Talk about sex. This promises to be an awkward but nonetheless important talk. Teaching children what is and is not appropriate when it comes sex will lay the groundwork for them for years to come. Teens, though they hate to admit it, still need guidance from their parents. You are their best resource when it comes to explaining hormones and sexuality. Tell him whatever he decides to do sexually is ultimately his own choice, and though it can be scary, the best thing is for him to be empowered and informed. It’s okay to tell her that a healthy, consensual, sexual relationship can be a wonderful thing—and be sure to emphasize in no uncertain terms that mutual consent and practicing safe sex are non-negotiable.