A Back-to-School Guide for Talking to Your Kids About Consent

It’s back-to-school season, which means that our children are gearing up to learn even more and make new friends. 

As your children get ready to go back to school, perhaps you have discussed what they’re excited or nervous about. But have you upgraded (or even started) your consent talk with them? 

No matter your child’s age, it’s important to teach them about consent. 

The most important part of this conversation is that consent is not something inherently sexual in nature. Consent just means that we’re safeguarding our own boundaries, affirming our needs, and respecting the needs and boundaries of others. 

Our first conversations around consent start by being aware of our physical space and others who are in that space. This could be touching someone (whether it is a wanted touch or not) in a way that they don’t like or are hurt by. It could also be intruding upon someone else’s space, even if there isn’t any touching involved (e.g.spying on someone when they are using the bathroom).

Today, conversations about consent take a new level of priority because many parents whom I work with are frustrated and confused. They want to show their children that there should be trust, love, and affection in this world and on the other hand, they are scared that their child has violated somebody else’s boundaries or that they are being violated. 

Since sexuality is considered as the most private and personal space in most societies and the experience of pain and pleasure could be simultaneous in some sexual interactions, clarifying boundaries is crucial. Understanding and practicing consent is essential for all of our relationships — platonic, professional, or romantic — to thrive. 

So, when you’re putting together that first day of school list, don’t forget to add “talk about consent” to it. Here’s how to get started. 

1. Know what is age-relevant 

The way you talk about consent with a kindergartener, elementary schooler, a middle schooler, and a high schooler are all different. In fact, the conversations can vary greatly depending on where your child lands within each of those categories. 

For example, in early elementary school, your consent conversation will involve identifying when people are uncomfortable, asking for permission, and understanding your feelings. You’ll likely also be having conversations about what to do or who to talk to if someone touches you the way you don’t like (it could even be too much hugging). 

But, as children age, so does the conversation.  When your child is in middle school, for example, they are likely going to be coming across more media that is sexual in nature. They may also be thinking more about their sexuality and sex, and so conversations about personal boundaries, respect, and communication can become more nuanced. 

As children enter high school, their social world shifts yet again. Building upon the conversations you’ve already had, you may start talking about how alcohol or other substances can affect consent. 

So, know that you don’t have to cover every facet of consent during your first conversation. As we’ll talk about later, consent is something that should be talked about in an ongoing manner, and these conversations should build on each other depending on your child’s needs and social environment. 

2. Ask how they feel 

Emotional intelligence and communicating one’s feelings are critical foundations to understanding consent. If we don’t allow our children to express their feelings, we’re ultimately telling them that there isn’t much of a point in setting and expressing their boundaries. So, encourage them to open up about how they’re feeling. Open-ended questions work best here, and you can adjust them based upon the situation. Some examples are below: 

  •  How are you feeling about the new school year starting? 
  • What is something that has frustrated you recently? 
  • What new thing you would like to try?
  • What did you try recently that you didn’t quite like?
  • What was your favorite part of the day? 
  • What do you think you could do to feel better about __________? 
  • Why do you think ________ had that reaction? 

Talking about feelings can be uncomfortable for many people, so set the scene. By making feelings talk part of casual conversation (perhaps while preparing a meal, doing shared chores, or sitting down for a snack) you’re showing your child that how they feel matters to you and that talking about their feelings is normal. If your child has a particularly difficult time talking about their feelings, using a worksheet like this one or a book In My Heart by Jo Witek and Christine Roussey can help jumpstart a conversation.

3. Talk about bystander intervention 

What will or can you do if you see or think someone else’s boundaries are being violated?

During and outside of the school day, your child is likely to see things that don’t feel quite right to them. That might be someone being bullied, or perhaps it is something that they perceive to be unfair. It may also be that they are recognizing the signs that someone is hurting one of their friends. 

Regardless of the situation, you can help prepare them by covering some bystander intervention basics. While your child should never put themselves in harm’s way, they should know that their voice and actions matter. Teach them that if they see something wrong, they always have options.

For example, they can turn to the 3 Ds: Direct, Distract, and Delegate, depending on what they feel most comfortable with.

Direct: Call out something as inappropriate in a matter-of-fact manner. This might be something like “Hey, don’t treat him like that. Just leave him alone.”  

Distract: This technique is best used in larger social settings, and can be used to change the conversation or change someone’s focus. So, if someone is taunting someone or doing something inappropriate, a sudden change of subject, starting a new game, or even spilling a plate nearby can create a distraction and alleviate the atmosphere. This is best used by older children who can understand the nuances of a situation. 

Delegate: There will be plenty of times when children shouldn’t intervene in a situation on their own — and any situation merits talking to an adult — but in particularly intense situations, using delegation is helpful. Delegation means finding someone else who is better equipped to handle the situation, like a teacher or parent. If this is the method that your child chooses, it is important that you are equipped to handle it in a sensitive manner. First, you can applaud your child by recognizing something was not quite right. Second, thank them for trusting you with this information. And third, tell them what you will do with the information. Many children don’t tell their parents if something does not feel or look right because they are afraid of the parents’ actions. Which brings us to… 

4. Suspend judgment 

If you’re having regular conversations where you talk about boundaries, consent, and values, at some point, your child is going to tell you something that activates your parental radar. When that happens, pause, take a breath, and moderate your gut reaction so that you don’t cause them to shut down. Ask them to tell you more about what is happening. 

Our protective parental instincts can sometimes make us have an intense reaction, like raising our voices or asking many pointed questions, or even questioning our child’s judgment. But, doing those things can cause our child to emotionally shut down and be no longer willing to talk with us. 

So, rather than following your first instinct, take a pause. Ask open-ended questions (you have some options above) to better understand the situation. Get what information you can so that you can continue the conversation from an informed place, helping your child understand why what they’re describing is wrong or needs to be further addressed. 

5. Help them identify their boundaries

We can’t communicate our boundaries if we don’t know what they are. Many people don’t learn about their boundaries until one has been crossed and they feel upset about it. So, encourage your children to explore and identify their boundaries early on. 

You can model this by asking them permission questions like “Is it okay if I carry you now?” or “Would you prefer an egg or cereal for breakfast?” 

When we give our children ownership over their boundaries, feelings, and responses, we are really telling them that their boundaries are important to us and that we respect them. At the beginning of each new school year (or more often), sit down with your child and talk to them about things that they want to happen (“I want you to wake me up in the morning”) and things they don’t want to happen (“I don’t want you to pick out my clothes for me.”) 

During these conversations, you can talk about the critical boundaries like which parts of their bodies no one should touch or how to interact with strangers. 

And remember, different cultures have different core beliefs about what is appropriate or not, and different cultures show love in different ways. So, if particular types of touch or name-calling are considered affectionate in your family’s culture, but those things would be inappropriate if someone else did it, make sure your child knows. Otherwise, they might mistakenly have the mixed message that these are signs of love and attention, therefore when these behaviors manifest in other people, they don’t think there is anything inappropriate about them. They might even start using them on others. 

6. Plan for who they can talk to if something happens 

If something happens to your child or they see or hear about something happening to someone else, help them know who they can talk to. Let them know you’re always there to hear from them and help them in these situations, but also know that they may not come to you first. 

Depending on the context, they may talk to a teacher, guidance counselor, coach, or friend’s parent first. You can help encourage them to include you in the conversation by keeping the line open — if you are regularly talking to them about their feelings, boundaries, and perceptions of the world, they will be more likely to come to you with problems. 

At the beginning of the school year, come up with a list of “helpers” who they can turn to and make sure that they know that they can turn to any of the people on this list. Write it down to help them remember it. You can even make this a part of your open-ended questions, with something like “Who would you go to if a problem happened at school?” or “Who do you trust to talk to about issues that you experience?” 

7. Continue the conversation 

Talking about consent isn’t a one-stop topic. It needs to be something that continues throughout the lifetime — not just while your child lives at home with you, not just during high school, but all throughout life. 

As our boundaries and contexts shift, so do our conversations about consent. Keep the line of communication open and set a reminder for yourself to make sure you’ve brought up some of these topics recently. 

It’s easy to assume that our children are learning about consent or relationships in school, but many are not. You can ensure that they develop the skills to thrive in life and in their relationships using these 7 techniques. 

How do you talk to your children about consent? Let me know!