Teaching Consent to Children

As it often occurs, national events and headlines make their way to your living rooms and kitchen tables, and into our therapy offices, as well.  Lately, questions about consent, boundaries, and healthy sexual expression have been occurring, as well as a question of “When should these topics be taught?”

Theoretically, it should be easy.  A very clear and explicit consent needs to be given/received before engaging in any type of intimate or sexual encounter.  However, adolescents are also grappling with peer pressure, hormones, social norms, and the general awkwardness of these years.  Experts and parents have concluded that by teaching aspects of boundaries and consent early, before hormones and sexuality have complicated things, means that there is a better chance of safety for all parties involved.
Talking about sex with children can be uncomfortable for all parties involved.  However, parents typically want to ensure that they are the ones delivering the messages of healthy sexuality – this is far preferred to having media figures, peers, or strangers delivering these messages!  Having honest, age-appropriate conversations about sex will inevitably include the fact that there are other people whose thoughts, feelings, and decisions matter.  Topics of peer pressure can be broached early, and without a sexual context; later discussions can incorporate the strategies that your child has learned to stand up to peer pressure when relationships and sex become involved.  Discussing topics such as substance use, safe sex practices, and body self-care can also weave in discussions related to how to say no, how to express changing ones mind, and how to ask for help if a situation feels unsafe.
From an early age, teaching your child about boundaries can be a very helpful way for a child to learn ownership over his or her own body and the power of saying “no.” Children should be taught to ask before hugging or kissing a family member or friend, and they also should be taught that it is ok to say “no” to affection from a family member as well.  While onlookers may consider your child “rude” for not accepting a pinch or sloppy kiss from an overly friendly family member, the lessons of your child learning that their body is their own is a priceless one.
An analogy that has been used with older adolescents is the “Cup of Tea” metaphor for consent.  This metaphor likens a sexual encounter with making someone a cup of tea.  A person may initially want the tea, and then change their mind.  You cannot force a person to drink the tea even though they initially wanted it.  A person may fall asleep before you have finished brewing the tea.  You may not pour it down their throat, if they have fallen asleep.  This metaphor seems to be easy for most ages and developmental levels to grasp, and also takes away some of the giggles and squirms that accompany the true “birds and bees” talk.
Sexual health, consent, and boundaries are important aspects of human life, and skills that should be taught early.  For more information on safety and consent, feel free to contact us.  We would love to help!