How to talk with kids about consent: Top 5 strategies for parents

Hundreds of parents and carers joined our recent webinars with Elephant Ed on the topic of consent. Here are their top 5 strategies for parents to start, and continue, the conversation at home.

Consent education has been in the spotlight following Chanel Contos’ petition calling for sexual consent education to be taught better and earlier in Australian schools.

The petition has now been signed by over 40,000 people and is accompanied by over 6,000 testimonies from young women describing their experiences of sexual assault during their school years. This petition, along with recent events in Parliament, have sparked significant discussion and awareness around the issue of consent and sexual violence, particularly amongst young people.

Our team at Elephant Ed work with tens of thousands of young people every year. We send youthful and relatable facilitators to hundreds of schools to deliver interactive workshops on sexuality and relationships education. Recently, we have been inundated by requests from parents wanting more support around the issue of consent.

As a follow up to our webinar series on consent with The Parents Website, we’ve put together our top five strategies for parents to utilise in starting this important conversation at home.

1. Focus on positive education, rather than fear tactics

As a parent, it can be easy to fall into the trap of telling your kids what not to do.

Don’t have sex. Don’t drink too much alcohol. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get an STI.

There are two harmful effects of this approach.

First, it fails to educate your child on the positive actions they can take. It is so important to reinforce positive, safe and healthy behaviours, such as what a healthy relationship looks like, how to be an upstander, and how to ensure valid sexual consent is given every single time.

It is also important to reinforce the key requirements for valid sexual consent. This includes (but is not limited to) complying with legal age requirements, free agreement and the presence of enthusiastic, informed, specific and reversible consent.

Second, it creates an environment at home where your child may fear approaching you when in need. If your child is concerned about possible punishments or judgments around their behaviour, they may refrain from actively seeking support from you as a parent.

The more you focus on the positives, rather than negatives, the more likely your child will be to come to you for support when they really need it.

2. Avoid victim blaming attitudes

Often, the conversation surrounding sexual assault focuses heavily on the victim.

What were they wearing? How much did they have to drink?

Many people use clothing choice to justify a perpetrator’s actions because ‘they were asking for it‘. Language as seemingly innocent as ‘you can’t go out wearing that’, leads to this understanding that what a woman wears implies consent because it is revealing.

Parents and guardians – clothing does not equal consent.

Furthermore, when the victim is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, often the conversation steers to whether they should have had that much to drink, or what they, as the victim, could have done differently. But when the offender is under the influence at the time of the assault, this is used in their defence, that they couldn’t have known better because they were under the influence.

3. Talk early. Talk often

As Chanel Contos’ petition calls for, consent education should start early. Earlier than you probably think. Talking with your child about consent does not have to include discussion about sexual activity.

You can start a conversation around consent in early primary school, reinforcing key concepts around personal boundaries, body safety and the importance of respecting others’ desires. As your child matures, this can transition to more explicit discussions around sexual consent.

While it’s important to start talking early, it’s also important to talk often. Rather than having the one-off, awkward talk about the birds and the bees, try having lots of little talks. A one-off talk is not only cringe-worthy, but it can also be overwhelming and cause great anxiety and embarrassment.

Use teachable moments, or triggers, to help start these frequent conversations. Sexualised images in advertisements, the current consent petition, sexual assault cases in the media – these are all fantastic triggers to start a productive conversation.

4. Acknowledge related areas

It’s not enough to have one or two conversations with your child explicitly about consent. Consent is a multi-layered concept, with many connected themes that impact how young people are navigating sexual relationships.

A clear theme in many testimonies in Chanel’s petition was that these assaults were occurring at parties, often where alcohol was involved.

We know consent must be freely given – peer pressure at parties can result in individuals being pressured into doing something they are not comfortable with. We also know consent must be informed – the presence of alcohol and drugs impact a person’s ability to make decisions and understand what it is they are agreeing to, which impacts their ability to decide whether they want to participate in sexual activity with someone.

Unfortunately, due to the ease of access to pornography, many young people are using pornography as their main form of sex education, which can create extremely unrealistic expectations around sexual activity.

In pornography, verbal consent is not shown. There is no depiction of communication, discussing of boundaries, individuals asking to slow down or stop, and that request being respected. Additionally, pornographic media often portrays aggression and violence as acceptable behaviours during sex. This violence and aggression is overwhelmingly directed towards women. This creates unrealistic expectations around gender roles in sexual activity and how men are expected to act towards women.

Consent is just as important in an online forum as it is in person – now more than ever, young people are using technology to communicate with friends and initiate intimate relationships online.

With that may come the sharing of intimate images – sexting, or often referred to as sending nudes. Young people are more commonly sharing another person’s photos with others – this is often done without their consent. This is referred to as image-based abuse and can lead to a variety of legal consequences.

5. Dealing with disclosures of assault

In the circumstance where your child decides to share a sexual assault experience with you, there are some important things to keep in mind. As a first step, we recommend using the HEARTS technique:

  • Hear – Listen, believe and remain calm. Ensure they are safe and not at risk.
  • Empathise – Encourage, give them your attention, let them use their own words. Provide a sense of agency and control, particularly around how and when they choose to share.
  • Affirm it is not their fault – Reassure them and acknowledge that this happens.
  • Record Observations – Remain present in the conversation, but also ensure you keep a record of what has happened.
  • Tell someone – It is not your job to fix everything – you are not a trained professional in this area. Don’t offer specific advice or question in detail about the assault. Refer them to a specialist and report if needed.
  • Self-care – These disclosures can be distressing to hear. Make sure you also take care of yourself and seek help if you need it.

About Elephant Ed

Since 2015, Elephant Ed has been taking a different approach to sex education, sending young, relatable and highly trained facilitators to deliver fun and engaging sex education workshops to schools, universities and community groups.

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