By Zuleyma Rivera, LMSW
Many teens have never talked to their parents about consent. This is a big problem. Teens don’t want to hurt their partners, but they aren’t born with the tools they need to navigate consent (meaning agreeing to sexual activity) and communicate effectively about sex. When we don’t talk about these things, we are just making it more likely that they and their partners will have painful experiences.
As an adolescent and family therapist, communication is a key part of the work that I do. You possess a wealth of experience and advice to share with your young ones, but despite your enthusiasm and good intentions, you may feel as if your message is falling on deaf ears. This can be extremely frustrating for both you and your teen, who may feel misunderstood or judged.
If you’re struggling with how to communicate about consent with your teen, these five tips are for you.
1. Get comfy.
If you are uncomfortable talking about consent, your teen will notice. Get comfy talking about sex by sitting down with a friend. Ask them to think back to their adolescent years and role-play being their teenage self. Talk about consent with them like you would your teen, noting any discomfort you may have. Many people feel uncomfortable using anatomically correct words, for example. Pay attention to your body and to the response you may be getting from your pretend “teen.” Then, reverse roles so you can experience being on the receiving end of the conversation. After, get feedback from your friend. This way, you’ll notice what you may need to educate yourself about or become more comfortable with.
2. Don’t force it.
This is a whole lot easier said than done. Look for opportunities to gradually introduce themes relevant to consent or to ask open-ended questions about boundaries. For example, you could ask a question related to a TV ad or show, a song that’s playing, or an Instagram post.
You don’t have to have one heavy conversation with your teen. Sometimes we become more welcoming to new ideas through gradual exposure and exploration. Try asking, “What do you think of that?” in relation to a sexual harassment accusation. Or, if your teen says something like, “that guy was creepy” when watching a TV show, ask “yeah? How so?” This gives them more thinking space and opens communication around those topics.
Keep in mind that consent and boundaries do not only apply to sex. They apply to ALL relationships. If your teen mentions that someone made them feel uncomfortable, use the opportunity to explore personal cues of discomfort (like self-doubt or a racing heartbeat) and practice assertive boundary setting (e.g., saying no).
3. Talk with your teen, not at them.
Respect your teen’s critical thinking abilities: ask open-ended questions, use active and reflective listening (repeat what they said in your own words) and ask them if you correctly understood what they said. Telling your teen what to do will not only annoy them, but will shoot down any chance of a sincere exchange of ideas and queries. Instead, help your teen come up with a personalized solution to a general problem. This will help them problem solve in other situations. This is why therapists don’t tell their patients what to do, but instead facilitate the discovery of self-knowledge. This, in essence, is what you want to do with your teen. When your teen has a question, hold their hand through the problem solving process, gently guiding them and respecting their thoughts.
4. Be inclusive.
If your teen is questioning his/her/their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, they may be worried about how safe it is to “come out” to you. Using heteronormative and binary language may send the signal that you won’t be supportive of them, and make them shut down.
Be inclusive by talking about not only boys and girls, but boys and boys or girls and girls. Assert the existence of different gender identities. This creates a safe environment for your teen to explore their own identity.
Even if your teen isn’t questioning their identity, using inclusive language sends the signal that LGBTQ relationships and identities are normal.
5. Be sex/intimacy positive.
Wanting sex is healthy and normal, and it can be fun and positive when appropriate, consensual and responsible. Emphasize the role sex plays in intimacy and caring, loving relationships. We talk more about having sex positive talks with your teen here.
There are lots of different types of intimacy. Reassure your teen that it’s completely normal to be excited, worried, indifferent or unsure about sex or specific sex acts. Some people aren’t even into sex at all! It’s all completely normal and ok. Self-discovery is an ongoing journey, not a destination.
Keep in mind that conversations about consent, boundaries, intimacy, relationships, sex and sexual health are complex and interconnected. You can’t cover everything in one conversation. While these tips cover communication strategies, you may still have questions about consent itself. Check out this blog post about common misconceptions about consent. I also like the books Learning Good Consent, edited by Cindy Crabb (appropriate for slightly older teens and includes illustrations and anecdotes); and Consensuality: Navigating Feminism, Gender and Boundaries Towards Loving Relationships by Helen Wildfell.
Keep in mind that how you talk about these issues will depend on your teens’ maturity.
Don’t forget that there are professionals here to help. At the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, we have health educators, social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, support groups, and more geared to meeting all of your teen’s needs. If your adolescent is 10-22 years old, they can make a free appointment for the confidential, non-judgmental health care they need.
Zuleyma Rivera, LMSW is a clinical social worker with a specialization in children, youth and families, and in treating trauma in adolescents. Zuleyma has worked in community-based preventative services agencies and outpatient substance use disorder clinics, and as a home-based family therapist and school-based clinician. She is currently an outpatient clinical social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in Manhattan.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.