It’s Never Too Early: How to teach consent at every age to keep all kids safe from sexual abuse

This April marks the 22nd anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an ongoing campaign to bring awareness to and educate the public on the impacts that sexual assault and violence have on our communities.

In the United States, a child becomes a victim of sexual assault or abuse every 9 minutes. An overwhelming majority of sexual assault or rape victims under the age of 18 are between the ages of 12 and 17, accounting for 66% of occurrences involving minors. And though many relate these experiences as a consequence of stranger danger, 91% are initiated by the child’s family member or someone they are familiar with.

The outcomes of experiencing sexual abuse as a child can be both physically and mentally detrimental. Effects can lead to physical injury, depression, symptoms of PTSD, increased risk of sexual victimization in adulthood, suicide ideation and attempts, and can even increase the possibility of the child perpetrating sexual violence against others.

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However, before trauma occurs, preventative methods like teaching children about consent and body autonomy can help to protect children from sexual abuse. This will look different depending on the childhood stage the child is experiencing. We’ve gathered some information and talked to experts about the best ways to educate your child about autonomy, boundaries, and consent based on their age range and stage of childhood.

Early Childhood

“When we’re talking about consent at this age for children, we’re talking about permission,” said Rosalia Rivera, a child sexual abuse and prevention specialist and founder of Consent Parenting.

At this stage, parents should put focus on teaching their children that their bodies belong to them and that they have to right to say what happens to or with their bodies. “This is where we start to help kids understand the idea of boundaries, and that means that you start to think about and decide what you are okay with.”

Practicing consent with children can essentially start soon after birth. Though at earlier ages they may be unable to respond, using language that reflects consent and permission can help parents get used to expressing respectful communication. This could be as simple as asking permission before displaying physical affection such as a hug or kiss. It is vital to share this sentiment with other family members to ensure that they also acknowledge the child’s autonomy.

Children should also be encouraged to take care of their own bodies as they grow and discover different body parts. As they take more responsibility for bathing themselves, letting children wash their own bodies and genitals can promote a positive body image and teach ownership. This can also be an opportunity to practice consent in asking to help with bathing, as many children in this stage will still require some assistance.

Elementary School

This stage comes with more opportunities to display what consent looks like on a day-to-day basis, as children as able to interact more and hold conversations with their parents and others.

Providing examples of consent in daily interactions is a great way to show kids what autonomy and boundaries look like. Kimberly Vered Shashoua, a licensed clinical social worker who works primarily with transgender and queer adolescents and young adults, suggests actions like awaiting a response before entering a child’s room or being conscious about personal space while spending time together. “Showing that you respect your kids’ boundaries is asking permission.”

Children also need to know that even though they have a right to say what happens with their bodies, there are situations in which exceptions may occur. “When they’re this young, we also have to preface that because, as parents, our job is their health and safety, then that means that there are certain things that we know are necessary,” said Rivera. “Going to the doctor and having to get a vaccine, these are health and safety situations where your boundaries have to be overridden, but we’ll always let you know ahead of time.”

Shashoua suggests offering a choice in situations like these so kids still feel that they have some input on the matter. “With younger kids, you may have to lead them more. If we have to wear a shirt to go into McDonald’s, do you want to wear your Spiderman shirt or this other thing?” If there is opposition, this provides the opportunity to engage in conversation. “Then it’s like, you have to. You can choose, but you have to wear a shirt.”

In teaching body autonomy, it is also essential to use the proper terminology when referring to parts of the body. Although many parents prefer to use nicknames for certain body parts during these ages, specialists and professionals argue against it. Rivera attributes this reluctance to parents deeming these terms as “dirty words” and a fear of increased interest and curiosity in these areas but believes providing the same level of education around genitals that we do with other body parts will have the opposite effect.

Decreasing stigma around the genitalia can help children learn that although these areas are private and remain covered, they are still parts of the body and that it is acceptable to talk openly with parents about anything they may be experiencing regarding these areas.

“Once we give kids this information, it actually removes the taboo around these parts of the body, and it reduces shame.” This can also be beneficial in cases of reporting any abuse. A child stating that someone touched their genitals in an inappropriate manner, as opposed to a nickname for the parts, can help to ensure the allegation is taken seriously.

Middle School

Teaching consent to older ages is essentially taking the foundational concepts taught at younger ages and updating them to include more real-life situations. This stage requires more conversation, reflection, and expression as children develop into pre-teens, experience puberty, and learn more about their bodies.

“What’s really important in the older age range is the emphasis on both protecting yourself but also being aware of learning how to communicate what you want to do,” Rivera stated.

During this stage, Rivera emphasizes that parents should also aim to educate children about other methods of communication, like reading body language, facial cues, tone of voice, and word choice.

It is essential to inform your child that the absence of a “no” does not equate to a yes. Body cues like a lack of verbal communication or enthusiasm in participating, distancing oneself from another, or avoiding eye contact can indicate a desire to stop an interaction.

“If you ask someone to do something and they don’t say yes but they didn’t necessarily say no, that means that you still need to clarify and get more communication until you have a better understanding of does this person want to do this with me or can I do this with this person.” This is essential during this stage of growth where kids often run into more situations involving peer pressure, especially in an age of prominent social media use.

Social media is a strong tool for influencing the mindset and ideals of younger generations. Rivera highlights the significance of parental influence in getting kids to examine the type of content they watch and determine whether the actions are appropriate.

“It really is all about getting into conversations with them that help them become critical thinkers.” Scrolling their feeds with them and asking what they think about certain situations in which consent and boundaries are involved will help them to question the message being relayed as opposed to just absorbing it.

High School

As children reach teenhood and transfer into high school, parents should prepare their kids to be able to handle situations in which the parents or another trusted adult are not present. In this stage, children are more likely to participate in activities in which they are mainly interacting with peers and be pressured to indulge in drugs and alcohol.

Teens may be influenced to comply with others for fear of being ridiculed, bullied, or ostracized by their peers, leading some to participate in unfavorable behaviors. This is a time to communicate and allow them to reflect on their personal ethics and morals.

Being honest about the impact of peer pressure is a key step in helping to combat the issue. “The first thing to do is acknowledge that this is a real thing and that with social media, teens can get a sense that they’re behind if they’re not doing risky behaviors like drinking or doing drugs and driving,” Shashoua said.

This stage coincides with a period in which many begin to explore the physical aspects of romantic relationships. This is when parents should remind their children about the bodily rights of others as well as themselves in ensuring that they understand their bodies belong to them, no matter how they’re dressed or what they’re wearing. “We have to re-educate them on what body rights mean. You could be walking down the street naked, still, no one has the right to grab you,” Rivera explained.

It’s also important to instill in your child that although someone initially gives consent to an action, it can be revoked, and this decision should always be respected. “This is a really important message that teens need to hear. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. You’re allowed to change your mind and you’re allowed to speak up with that and have that boundary.”

This idea corresponds with other categories of boundaries that someone may have, and it is essential that children are aware of them. Rivera notes that factors like harassment and coercion fall under elements related to mental and emotional boundaries. “I think when kids get older, we want to explain to them that there are all these different types of boundaries that they have a right to uphold and protect. And if somebody tries to cross those, use your voice and speak up against it and say, ‘I’m not okay with this.’”

Through all stages, keep talking.

Teaching consent and making children aware of the rights they have to their own bodies, through all ages, requires constant communication. “Have ongoing talks. These are really important ways of helping kids understand healthy relationships as they get older. That means healthy friendships and healthy romantic relationships,” Rivera said.

This open dialogue can also give parents insight into their children’s thinking processes and methods of discernment. Shashoua finds that helping kids navigate situations as opposed to telling them what to do proves beneficial. “It is a lot easier to just tell our kids things- it’s a lot harder to teach them how to think, but the results of a kid that knows where those lines are is going to pay off than if they’re used to their parents making these choices for them.”

Jazmin Towe is a speech therapy advocate, editor, and journalist. Her work, covering topics ranging from mental health and emotional literacy to suicide prevention, racial disparities, parenting, and education has appeared in Romper, Verywell Family, Parents Magazine, and SheKnows. Family-oriented and with a strong passion for early childhood education and development, she serves as the Family Ambassador for her son’s elementary school.

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