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More Than “Yes”: Talking With Your Teen About Consent

Thursday, March 24, 2022 3:47 PM

By Angelina Campanile

Saying “yes” is easy. Saying “no” can be difficult.

While some high school freshmen first learn about sexual consent in health class, many others hear about it in college. What does consent mean? And what is the best way to approach this awkward topic with your teenager?

Research shows that parents who talk openly to their children about sexuality—sharing their personal values about healthy sexual relationships—have influence over their children’s sexual behavior as they grow.

It’s important to make sure your teen understands the full meaning of consent because it can allow them to protect themselves from unwanted sexual activity, harassment and assault.

Teens Consent

Breaking the Ice

Here are some tips to get the conversation started from Mary Faith Terkildsen, MD, an expert in sexual health and adolescent gynecology:

  • Explain consent in an age-appropriate manner
  • Instead of a one-time conversation, make it an ongoing discussion that unfolds over time with smaller talks
  • Look for opportunities to start the conversation in a relaxed situation, such as a car ride or when your teen is in a talkative mood
  • Start by asking what your teen already knows about consent. Listen with a non-judgmental ear and affirm their answers that display a healthy understanding
  • Describe what a positive, healthy, romantic relationship should feel like
  • Talk about feelings that indicate a sexual encounter is unhealthy, like feeling pressured, bullied, forced or coerced to do something, even if it’s just holding hands or hugging

The Biggest Misconception About Consent

All too often, teens wrongly believe that saying nothing is the same as giving consent. Help your teen understand that only “yes” means yes. There is no substitute. Saying “yes” when under the influence of alcohol or drugs does not qualify as consent.

The concept of consent seems simple but teenagers may find it difficult to voice their objection during a sexual encounter. Maybe they are embarrassed or worried about hurting the other person’s feelings. Let your teen know that it’s okay for them to say, “This is making me uncomfortable.” Talk with them about silent behaviors that do not mean consent, such as passivity, submission, silence, gifts exchanged, going on a date, or agreeing to go to a private location.

For more information about teens and sexual health, talk with your teen’s pediatrician or contact our Adolescent Care program.