How to Talk to Your Children About Consent and Sexual Assault

By Lisa Esposito,

It’s a delicate but crucial job for parents: teaching kids about healthy sexuality and boundaries, making them aware of the potential for sexual abuse, navigating issues of consent and helping them plan what to do if they witness something wrong. From kids starting preschool to teens heading to college, an ongoing, open conversation is more effective than a sudden, scary lecture. Below, experts offer parents age-based, proactive approaches for talking to kids about sensitive issues.

Talk to younger kids in a simple, straightforward way. Before getting into safety rules about good touch versus bad touch, kids need to know basic facts. That starts with using anatomically correct language – the right words – when talking to kids about their body parts, says Jenny Coleman, director of Stop It Now!, a national organization committed to the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Explain in a way kids can understand – for instance, that parts of their bodies covered by a swimsuit are their private areas. Once kids are familiar with the basics, then rules around sexual touch and safety like “nobody can touch you, and you can’t touch someone else” can become part of an ongoing family conversation about respect, privacy and boundaries, Coleman says. “We want to build that into our overall healthy sexuality education that parents and caregivers provide to their children,” she says.

A point that Coleman emphasizes: “We absolutely want to give children tools, communication and information – and it’s still going to be adults’ responsibility to keep kids safe.”

One important message about boundaries is that kids own control over their bodies, Coleman says: “You get to say no if somebody wants to give you a hug and you don’t feel like a hug. Even if it’s Grandma, I’m going to back you up and say, ‘No.'” Parents can explain to adults in their sphere: “This is how we’re raising our children because we’re concerned about their safety.” It’s about setting a precedent that kids can say “No,” whenever they want – in case another adult tries to do something that isn’t safe.

Depending on how you were raised, starting these discussions can be discomforting. “We want to be culturally sensitive,” Coleman says. “We can’t force [parents] to say, ‘Hey, great; I’m going to start talking about vaginas and penises to my 5-year-old.'” Parents can start by learning more on their own, she says, to build a knowledge base they didn’t get as kids. And you don’t have to be an instant authority, Coleman says: “It’s OK to say to a child, ‘To be honest, I’m kind of shy about talking about healthy sexuality.'”

Your Voice Matters

Tweens and teens may roll their eyes and say they’re bored, but a parent’s voice still resonates. However, parents may find themselves freezing as kids reach their middle-school years, says Dr. Cora Breuner, head of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Adolescence.

“It’s like, ‘If I talk to them about consent and sexual activity, they’re going to go have sex,'” Breuner says. But parents needn’t fear putting ideas in kids’ heads, she says. If anything, the more parents talk to kids and give them guidance, the less likely they are to agree to sexual activity, she says.

As a clinician and professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington, Breuner frequently speaks with reluctant families who really don’t want to talk about sex.

“You can actually have this conversation about the parents’ values,” she says. As an opener, she might recommend: “I know that in our family, within our faith, with our culture, we are not at all promoting sexual activity. However, we still need to have a conversation about what people might do or how you might find yourself in a position where I’m not here as your parent to help guide you through this.”

A preemptive discussion works better than a reactive one. “It should not be in the heat of the moment when they’re upset, but an open conversation families have with their children when it’s calm and quiet,” Breuner says.

Discussing specific scenarios help kids relate and practice how to respond if they’re ever faced with similar situations in real life. “You need to learn some proper script to say when you don’t want someone to do this. Obviously it goes from, ‘No means no’ and ‘I don’t want you to touch me’ all the way to ‘I’m calling 911.'”

Permission to change your mind is another important point, Breuner says. It’s a common misconception that starting any type of intimate behavior, like kissing, is a sign of consent and you can no longer back out or say no.

Some adolescents feel more comfortable speaking frankly with their health professionals. “The parent should be OK leaving the room and trusting that the pediatrician or whoever the health care provider is, whether it’s a nurse practitioner or physician or whoever, will have a conversation about safety,” Breuner says.

You don’t want your son or daughter to be a victim or an instigator. If you’re concerned about your child acting out sexually or abusing another child, you can reach out to experts at Stop It Now! Another resource is the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth website, part of a program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. It offers information about parental responses, prevention and legal concerns around what it terms “problematic sexual behaviors in youth.”

True Consent and Responsible Bystanders

Long before kids go off to college, Breuner says, parents should talk with them about safety, sexual-assault prevention and the meaning of consent. It must be clear that people who are drunk or intoxicated cannot give consent to sex.

Parents could use studies or news items to serve as starting points for larger conversations about campus safety, Breuner suggests. It’s a good way to segue to the importance of traveling in twos, not having sex with someone who’s inebriated and having safety scripts ready, she says, “because statistics show you might get into that situation whether you realize it or not.”

Kids also need to consider how they’ll react if they see someone else being victimized. “What I’ve taught my kids and what I teach my patients is: ‘Which one are you going to be if you witness something: Are you going to be a bystander? Are you going to intervene?’ Breuner says. Having that conversation ahead of time, she says, allows kids to respond: “I’m not going to be a bystander; I’m not going to be a participant. I’m not going to walk away. I’m going to help – this is what I’m going to do.”