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What is consent? Talking with your teen about sex and relationships

Have you talked to your teen about sex and consent? Here’s why it’s so important to have the sex and relationships chat and what teens want parents to know (and what they want you to say).

If you grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s, chances are you learnt about the physiology of sex, but not much else. Apart from seeing that book on your parents’ bookshelf, you probably didn’t have conversations with them about the joy of sex and healthy relationships, and you probably haven’t had much guidance about how to talk to your own kids about sex and consent.

It’s important to start talking about safe, consenting sex before young people are sexually active, says national youth support service, Kids Helpline. Bringing up the topic of sex and consent shows our children that it’s okay to talk about these important parts of growing up.

What is consent?

Consent is when everyone agrees or gives permission for something to happen. When we’re talking about consenting to sex, it means that everyone involved in a sexual encounter is happy to participate – they don't feel pressured, forced or threatened – and can change their mind at any time. 

Teenagers have lots of hormones, strong feelings and powerful desires. It’s easy for young people to be influenced by these emotions and act before they think, particularly when it comes to relationships and sex, and especially if experimenting with drugs or alcohol is a factor in their social lives. But if teens have a strong understanding of healthy relationships and verbal consent and are given the chance to practise making good decisions, they’re more likely to make better choices.

Starting the consent conversation

Conversations about consent often start when children are young. Parents of young children instinctively teach consent by saying things like, “Jenny said she didn’t want a hug. When she says no, you have to stop.”

While some parents believe it’s a high school’s responsibility to teach kids about appropriate sexual behaviour, clinical psychologist Nikita Singh says parents need to lead discussions with their teens. “Talking about consent and sex is everyone’s responsibility,” she says. “I know it can be uncomfortable, but it’s important for parents to normalise these kinds of conversations.”

You can start the conversation by:

  • Using current events, TV shows or newspaper articles that relate to a sexual consent incident as a starting point. “You might point out something that’s happened recently and talk about the facts,” says Nikita. “Then you can say to your teen that you think it’s important to value and talk about consent and sexual relationships. This gets you past the initial discomfort and tests how ready your adolescent is to talk about these issues.”
  • Posing questions like, “What would you do if a girl/boy said they wanted to kiss you, but then changed their mind?” or “How will you know if it’s okay to kiss or touch someone, or that they’re ready for sex?”
  • Talking with your teen about consent doesn’t have to be heavy-handed – there are engaging and entertaining videos about consent. Watch these with your teen and follow up with questions like, “What did you think about that video?” or “What was the most interesting idea for you?”
  • Acknowledging that you may feel uncomfortable talking about sex and consent. It doesn't matter if you don’t have all the answers, and, in fact, teenagers appreciate it if their parents admit they don’t know everything. Take direction from one of the helpful expert online resources below.

It’s important to remember that starting the conversation, being open and non-judgemental are the most crucial factors in teens feeling they can discuss these tricky topics with you.

What teens want parents to know (and what they want you to say)

In episode two of the HCF Navigating Parenthood – Talking to Teens podcast, teenagers Barney and Ella discuss what they wish their parents knew about sex, relationships and consent.

Here are their top tips for parents talking with their teen:

  • Talk about the pleasure of sex (yes, really)
    “Schools teach you about getting people pregnant and getting STIs, but I think schools and parents definitely have to talk more about the good parts of sex, like the pleasure and having a relationship with your partner,” says Barney. Reading up on body language can be a good place to start.
  • Be on the same team as your child
    “Create a home environment where it’s obvious your children can talk to you,” says Ella. “Yes, you will have opinions if your child is walking into some really dodgy territory, but for the most part, it should be an environment where you can talk and figure stuff out together.”
  • Keep calm
    “If you find out your teenager has sent a nude photo, don’t say that the police are going to get involved,” says Ella. “You can just say, ‘It would’ve been better if you hadn’t done that, but now let’s work out what to do.’”
  • Trust your child
    “One thing I would want my parents to know is I've got intuition,” says Barney. “I've turned down parties because I know that something might go wrong. The parties I do ask my parents if I can go to are the more controllable ones, and the ones where people are actually having fun.”

Need more information or help?

Sex and consent are big issues, and they’re not topics you only raise once. If you have concerns about your child, you can get professional help from your child’s school counsellor, your GP or paediatrician, a mental health service or a psychologist.

Lean on these trusted online resources about sex and consent:

To learn more about what teens need to know (and know already!) about sex and consent, listen to Season 2 of HCF’s Navigating Parenthood: Talking to Teens, hosted by Rebecca Sparrow.

Words by Lindy Alexander
First published February 2020

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