How to Teach Your Child About Consent

mother talking to son

The Good Brigade / Getty Images

Experts, including the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), agree that children need to be taught about bodily consent and body autonomy and that conversations around this should start at an early age. But these can be difficult subjects, and it’s understandable that many parents feel unsure about how to bring these concepts up with their kids.

Let’s take a look at why teaching about consent is important, and the best way to go about it—from the preschool years through the teen years.

Why Is It Important to Teach Kids About Consent?

Probably the most urgent reason to teach your children about consent is to protect them from sexual abuse. No one wants to think about sexual abuse of children, but the statistics are sobering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that one out of every four girls and one out of every 13 boys will be a victim of sexual abuse during childhood. What’s more, 91% of the time, the perpetrator is someone the child knows, such as a family member or caregiver.

Elizabeth L. Jeglic, PhD, professor of psychology at John Jay College and author of "Protecting your Child from Sexual Abuse: What You Need to Know to Keep Your Child Safe," explains that because most perpetrators know the child, they often gain the trust of parents or guardians, who might not realize something is amiss. That’s why we need to empower our children to be able to recognize when their body autonomy is being violated and to feel safe in relaying that information to us.

But there are reasons to teach our children about consent besides the threat of sexual abuse, says Julia Baird, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.

“When children understand that they can decide when and how they use their bodies and that it is their right to do so, they begin to develop a sense of agency that impacts all aspects of their lives, not just their physical bodies,” she describes. “They learn how to be assertive and set boundaries, and also how to identify their own needs as well as being aware of others’ needs.”

What Are the Risks of Not Teaching Kids About Consent?

Simply put, not teaching our children about consent puts them at risk of sexual abuse, says Katie Edwards, PhD, associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “If we don’t teach children about consent and body autonomy or give them skills to resist and report sexual abuse, we are perpetrating the sexual abuse epidemic in our country,” she says.

We can’t always rely on others to do this teaching, either, says Dr. Jeglic. “Not all schools and states provide education on consent,” she notes. We can’t ignore the fact that children are going to learn about sex online or from their peers, and in those cases, parents can’t control how this information is delivered. Learning about consent from their parents keeps them safe, and provides them with accurate and clear information, says Dr. Jeglic.

Additionally, says Dr. Jeglic, children who have open communication with their parents about sexuality and bodily consent have higher self-confidence and are less likely to be victimized. Importantly, they are also more likely to report possible abuse to their parents.

How to Teach Kids About Consent, By Age

The way parents teach their kids about consent will vary from one child to another. Age and maturity will also factor in. You want to keep the discussions developmentally appropriate, but open and informative. Here are some ideas for how to accomplish this.

Preschool-Aged Children

It may seem strange or counterintuitive, but discussions about consent can happen during your child’s preschool years. New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services suggests that these discussions can happen as early as when your child is 3 years old.

A simple and effective thing you can do at this age is to teach your child the correct names for their body parts, including their private parts. We often shy away from using anatomically correct language, such as penis or vagina, because these words are uncomfortable, says Dr. Edwards. But it’s critical that we teach our young kids these words so that they can communicate clearly.

“For example, if a child tells her teacher that her uncle is touching her ‘cookie’ because that is the nickname she uses for vagina, the teacher may not understand what that means,” Dr. Edwards offers.

Young children also need to be taught that no one is allowed to touch their private parts. They need to be told that their body belongs to them and that it’s OK to say no to any kind of unwanted touch. “They should also be taught that they always have a right to tell people whether they want to be touched (in a non-sexual way) or not such as hugs, cuddles, or tickles, and that others should always respect their words,” says Dr. Jeglic.

Books About Consent for Preschoolers

For some parents, reading books to their children about these subjects can be a helpful way to bring them up. There are quite a few picture books out there appropriate for preschoolers that discuss these topics, including:

Elementary-Aged Children

As children get older, you can make the body autonomy and consent discussion more specific. For example, says Dr. Edwards, you can talk to your children about what they should do if someone touches them inappropriately or violates their boundaries.

“Children should be taught to shout ‘No!’ or to run away if someone is trying to touch them inappropriately or hurt them in some other way,” she suggests. “They should identify the trusted adults they can tell if someone is trying to touch them inappropriately.”

You should also start to teach your children that consent and boundaries are reciprocal, Dr. Jeglic recommends. “They should learn that they need to ask others for consent if they want to touch, hug, snuggle them,” she explains.

Finally, children should be taught about secrets. Often, sexual predators will them that what they do is a “secret,” and children this age are often of the belief that when someone tells you a secret, you must oblige and keep it under lock and key. But as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) notes, children need to understand that this is not the case at all when it comes to inappropriate touching and sexual abuse.

Books About Consent for Elementary Schoolers

Again, there are age-appropriate books to help you start this important discussion with your elementary-aged child, including:

Tweens and Teens

Part of the reason why it’s important to start talking to kids about consent as early as possible is that before you know it, your kids will become teenagers, and these topics become more pertinent than ever. Not only that, but as kids enter the tween and teen years, they start to become uncomfortable talking about these subjects. The earlier you establish some basic principles and open up lines of communication, the easier it will be to continue discussing these topics as your kids get older.

With tweens and teens, you want to focus on consent within relationships, whether romantic or not. You can model this within your own relationships, says Dr. Jeglic, showing that consent is something dynamic and should always be respected. When it comes to sexual activity, it’s important to teach teens the importance of clear, enthusiastic, verbal consent.

“Teens should also be taught about affirmative consent and always ask verbally, but also about how to observe body language, and that consent cannot be given if someone is drunk or high, passed out or asleep,” says Dr. Jeglic.

One way that you can broach some of these discussions with your teen is through the media, RAINN suggests. You can ask them what they think about something that happened on social media. You can discuss how consent is depicted on TV and in movies. You may also find it helpful to relate to your kids by sharing your own experiences with these subjects. The bottom line is to be direct with your children and don’t shy away from these issues.

A Word from Verywell

If you are still feeling uncomfortable about these discussions, that’s OK! When this is the case, Dr. Baird says that it can be helpful to examine your own feelings about these issues. Consider things like the messages you were given growing up about consent and body autonomy. Ask yourself honestly: What makes you so uncomfortable?

Talking to a therapist or counselor about these feelings and concerns can be helpful. It can also be helpful to talk to your child’s pediatrician, who can give you some perspective on the matter, and offer some fresh ideas for how to open up these discussions with your child.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Child abuse and neglect: What parents should know.

  2. New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Say no! Protecting children against sexual abuse.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing child sexual abuse.

  4. Rady Children’s Hospital - San Diego. Seven steps to teaching children body autonomy.

  5. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Talking to your kids about sexual assault.

Additional Reading

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.