Talk about consent
Consent is simple – it is an unambiguous “yes.” It’s possible to teach even young children about consent. Doing so not only reinforces your messages about establishing and respecting personal boundaries (see “Healthy Relationships”) and appropriate/inappropriate touch (see “Healthy Sexuality”), it will help them become young people who value and practice consensual sexual relations.
Teach your children:
- To ask for permission to touch another person, including friends or classmates. Teach them to ask things like, “May I hold your hand?” or “May I give you a hug?”
- Consent can be given or taken away at any time. For example, your friends may decide after a little while that they no longer want to hold your hand, or that even though they wanted a hug from you yesterday, they don’t want you to hug them now. Teach your children to check in frequently.
- Teach your children that just because someone didn’t say “no,” that doesn’t mean they’re definitely saying “yes” (only “yes” means “yes”). Teach your children that the other person gets to say, “Yes, it’s OK for you to hug me,” before your child may touch them.
Model these rules for consent and actively support your children’s practices of consent and setting personal boundaries.
Talk about abstinence AND safer sex
It’s possible to talk to young people about both abstinence and safer sex without sending a “mixed message.” From a young age, most of us hear mixed messages about a variety of things, which is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, your children’s grandparents might tell them to eat everything on their plates, but you might tell them they should stop eating when they’re full.
If, instead, young people learn about several options, it helps them think critically about things. This means that when they are in a situation where there’s temptation to engage in potentially perilous behavior, they have the ability to consider alternatives and what the outcomes might be. Teach your children from a young age to make progressively more complex decisions (see “Healthy Relationships”), so they’re comfortable weighing alternatives and understand that decisions have consequences. This is all part of critical thinking, which is an important skill to develop and practice in order to make healthy decisions throughout life.
Families, schools, and communities provide different messages that children need to sort out. It’s the adults’ responsibility to assist children in this task. Parents (and adult caregivers) have the advantage of having years to demonstrate their values to their teens. They know their teens’ attitudes and personalities. They understand their teens’ histories and goals for the future. Parents and other adults have had their teens’ entire lifetime to impress upon them what messages are most important. We sometimes don’t give our children enough credit for being able to navigate the values we provide.
Parents, teachers, or other adults send a clear message to children when they say, “I feel strongly that not having sexual intercourse while you’re a teenager is your best option. It is also important for you to receive information about birth control or protection so that someday, when you are ready to have intercourse, you’ll be better prepared to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or disease.” This message communicates both the values-based behavior you expect from them during their adolescent years and necessary information for future reference.
These conversations empower young people to act responsibly because they will need accurate information about things like contraception and sexual health at some point. Adults should consistently share their hopes and values when discussing this topic with their children; for example, “I hope you will wait to have sex until you are older and more mature,” and, later, acknowledge that young people are more mature than children, and need important information in order to make healthy decisions. For example, “When you decide to be sexually intimate with somebody, please make sure you always, always use protection against sexually transmitted infections and [if applicable] pregnancy.”
Talk to young people about getting “caught in the moment”
When asked why they didn’t use contraception or condoms, many young people will say, “I wasn’t planning it; it just happened. We got ‘swept away’ and didn’t use anything.” Make clear that this is not OK by reinforcing that they’re responsible for healthy decisions for themselves. (“You must be prepared — this is the mature way to act.”)
You can do this! Imagine the following scenario: You find condoms, contact information for test sites for sexually transmitted infections, or contraceptives in your teen’s room. Take a deep breath and remember these are signs that your ongoing conversations are important, that your teen is paying attention, and he or she is now trying hard to make responsible, mature decisions. Use it as an opportunity to have a conversation – support your teen in making healthy decisions, share your feelings, and talk together about intimacy, love, and responsibility.