Reading time: 10 minutes
Suitable for: Families of secondary-age children
Are you worried about talking to your teen about consent? Perhaps you’re concerned you’ll ruin your child’s innocence, frighten them, or do you feel embarrassed to talk about sex with them?
In fact, consent isn’t just about sexual activity. It’s a part of creating trusting and positive relationships with everyone, including friends and family.
We’ll look at:
- What we mean by consent
- Teaching your child to respect choices
- Sex and consent
- How to have these hard conversations with your child
- Where to get further help
At the end, you’ll find nine ideas to help you have these conversations with your child. But let’s start by finding out more about what consent actually means.
What does consent mean?
In a legal sense, the word “consent” is used to describe giving permission for sexual activity. Also, someone needs to consent to get married. But, we can think of it in a much wider way.
Think of consent as giving permission for someone to do something. You can teach your child the idea of seeking permission in all their relationships, with friends, family, and other adults.
Seeking permission includes:
- Asking before hugging and kissing a friend or family member
- Respecting someone’s choice if they say no or change their mind
- Showing your young person they have ownership over their own body
Consent isn’t just about saying “no” when you don’t like something, or assuming someone is happy unless they say otherwise. It’s important to get permission first and respect the choices people make.
Teaching your child to respect choices
Alongside asking permission, encourage your child to respect the choices their friends, family, and partners make. So if someone says no to a hug or a kiss, that’s fine and not a big deal. You can use the simple phrase, “no means no.”
You can reinforce this by finding opportunities for them to make choices at home and show them you respect their decision. Just remember to make sure you’re happy with whichever choice they make!
It’s also important for children to recognise that people can change their minds and that’s okay. Just because your partner wanted to hold hands yesterday doesn’t mean they have to do it today.
Someone might say yes to kissing and then change their mind and say they don’t like it. Check out this video to see consent explained simply with a sandwich.
Respecting how someone else feels
Teach your child the words “no” and “stop” are powerful and they should respect them. If someone says no, they need to stop immediately.
But consent isn’t just about stopping when you hear no, it’s looking for permission first. Your child can use questions to help them understand how their partner is feeling once they start romantic relationships.
They can try asking:
- Are you enjoying this?
- Do you want me to stop?
- Tell me if you change your mind.
Some children find it hard to say how they’re feeling. They may feel embarrassed or frightened to say they don’t like something. Often they’ll worry about being laughed at, or their partner will break up with them for saying no.
Remind your child they can also look for body language clues to spot if their partner isn’t enjoying something, but this doesn’t replace asking them for consent.
Children can learn from a young age that everyone has rights over their own body. No one should touch them without permission, and there are some parts of their body which are private.
Talking openly about body parts encourages your child to talk to you if they don’t feel comfortable about a situation or a person. Use correct body part names and explain the changes they’ll experience through puberty.
Being matter-of-fact helps avoid any embarrassment and encourages them to talk with you and ask questions. It’s okay if you don’t know the answer. You can say, “That’s a great question. I’ll find out the answer and let you know.”
While children learn about consent, sex, and relationships at school, it’s good for them to have conversations with you, too. It might feel embarrassing at first, but when you talk about sex and their changing bodies, you’re showing them it’s okay for them to talk to you.
There are lots of good books and websites you can share with them if you find it difficult to start these conversations. We’ve got a few listed at the end of this Quick Read to get you started.
Pressure to start sexual activity
Young people often feel pressured into starting sexual activity because they feel everyone else is. A survey of young people revealed nearly one third of women and a quarter of men in their teens and early twenties felt it wasn’t the right time when they first had sex, with most wishing they’d waited longer.
- Children under the age of 16 can’t legally consent to have sex.
- Being pressured into sexual activity is wrong, including refusing to use contraception.
- Everyone can choose if and when they have sex.
- People can choose to give permission for one sort of sexual activity, but not another
- We can remove consent at any time.
- There is no “right time” to start having sex.
- Without consent, all sexual activity is sexual violence.
Pressure on young people to have sex or sexual activity can be subtle or obvious. They may feel embarrassed to say no, or persuaded they’re making a fuss over nothing. Some young people feel that they have an obligation to “pay” for being taken out on a date or being given a present.
Other forms of pressure include:
- Manipulation: Like saying, “If you love me, you’ll do this for me.”
- Threats: This includes threatening to share indecent photos, or saying they’ll break up with them if they won’t have sex.
- Teasing: Jokes and name calling to make them feel ashamed.
- Using alcohol or drugs: To make them less inhibited.
- Social bullying: spreading rumours or lies.
- Violence: Being forced into sexual activity.
Teaching your child about consent, and what a healthy relationship should look like, helps keep them safe, recognise an unhealthy relationship, and gives them more confidence to share when they feel uncomfortable in a situation.
Having conversations about consent with your child
It’s hard to talk with a teenager! We’ve got nine simple ideas you can use to help you get these conversations started and make them a success.
1: Start talking about consent before you need to
Perhaps you worry you’re spoiling your teen’s innocence by talking about consent? In fact, a recent survey has shown a shocking 78% of 16-17-year-olds have seen online pornography. Imagine what they learn about relationships from what they’re seeing online.
Yes, it’s difficult to talk about sex, but young people want to find out information – and if they hear it from you, you know the messages they’re hearing. Don’t wait until your child has intimate relationships. Start talking before you need to.
2: Respect their relationships
Avoid teasing your child about dating and breakups. It can damage the relationship you have and make them less likely to talk with you about any problems they’re facing.
Show them you think these first romantic relationships are important and be open to conversations about them.
3: Have everyday chats, not lectures
The best way to talk about consent is to make it part of your everyday conversation, rather than sitting down for a serious discussion. Talk about what you’ve seen on a TV show or read in a book.
Having everyday conversations with your child about consent helps them learn that some people don’t enjoy being touched or kissed, while others do. They can learn that we’re all different, and that’s great.
4: Take the pressure away
Stay relaxed and be open to your child asking questions and being curious. You might feel embarrassed or uncomfortable at first, but the more open you are to these conversations, the easier it becomes.
Take the pressure off by doing something while you talk, like cooking a meal, or taking a walk. This can reduce the intensity of the conversation for you and your child.
5: Share what a healthy relationship should look like.
Show your teenager that a healthy relationship is about so much more than having sex.
Talk about characters they see on TV, in books, and in the news. Ask them about their opinions rather than lecturing.
6: Teach them a simple sentence
When your child first starts dating, rehearse a few simple responses they can use if they feel uncomfortable. Practising in advance is easier than trying to think of something in a situation.
They could say:
- “I don’t feel comfortable with this.”
- “Please stop.”
- “I don’t want to do this.”
- “I want to slow things down.”
Remind your child they don’t need to excuse the choices they make. Everyone has the right to decide what happens to their own body.
7: Discuss peer pressure
We often think of our children being pressured to do things, but remember your child can also pressure their friends, often without even realising it.
Talk about peer pressure. Teaching your child about being a good friend and respecting others’ decisions will help them recognise when they are put under pressure too.
8: Talk about alcohol
Drink and drugs take away our inhibitions. Your teenager is more likely to engage in sexual activity if they are under the influence.
Plan with them how they will stay safe when they go out to socialise. Encourage them to look out for friends who might have had too much and be good friends for each other.
9: Challenge stereotypes
We all have ideas about how teenagers will behave. Some of these are likely to be stereotyped ideas based on gender.
For example, “asking for trouble” is often used to describe young women in revealing outfits.
Boys are likely to have heard lots of messages about how they have to behave to be considered a man:
- “Boys will be boys.”
- “Man up.”
- “Get in there, my son!”
- “Boys don’t cry.”
- “He can’t help himself.”
Challenge these ideas when you hear them. You can say, “I think a real man…” to show a different idea of what masculinity looks like. Remind them that women can dress however they like and that doesn’t mean they give consent.
There are lots of helpful books about consent suitable for teenagers. While we like to share ideas, we don’t support any particular resource, and encourage you to check carefully before purchasing.
Useful books about consent:
- Let’s Talk About Bodies, Boundaries, Consent & Respect: Aimed at younger children up to secondary age.
- Welcome to Consent: An informative look into giving consent for young people aged 9-13.
- Sex Ed: An Inclusive Teenage Guide to Sex and Relationships: For young people aged 14+.
- NSPCC: Helpful resources about keeping children safe, including how to spot signs of child abuse and more about sexual behaviour
- NHS Health For Teens: contains information about forced marriage
- NHS: Leaflets about how to talk to your child about sex and information about consent.
We know it’s difficult to have these hard conversations with your child. Our helpful classes teach you practical ways to talk to your teen and build powerful lines of communication with them. Browse our upcoming events.