Planned Parenthood shares the importance of at-home conversations on consent and boundaries, and gives tips to discuss with youth at any age.

When you’re ready to talk to your kid about the importance of creating boundaries, you may wonder if it’s the right time to kick off those conversations.

Short answer: Yes, you can do it right now!

As part of Let’s Talk Month — an annual October campaign to foster continued conversations between youth and adults about sex education — we had a chat with our friends over at Planned Parenthood.

Julia Bennett, MPH, Planned Parenthood’s director of digital education and learning strategy, drilled down on the importance of sex education that incorporates consent and boundaries as a foundation.

Bennett says that sex education gives young people age appropriate, medically accurate information and answers to their questions about sex and relationships without being judged.

Access to this info is proven to positively impact people’s lives, including lowered rates of STI transmissions and less reported instances of bullying and IPV. Data such as this report from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

(UNESCO) also cites inclusive sex education as a form of sexual assault prevention.

But, Bennett reminds us that with only 30 states and D.C. requiring sex education in school, many young folks don’t have access to effective programming through their schools, making conversations at home more important than ever.

According to Planned Parenthood, consent is freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific.

It’s important that everyone involved understands what they’re consenting to and that no one feels pressured to say yes or guilty for saying no.

Ensure that your young folks understand that to reach adequate consent, open communication between them and their partner is non-negotiable.

Planned Parenthood says boundaries are a self-defined line of comfort. Within this context, it’s connected to how people allow others to engage with their bodies.

You can break this down for your teen into categories including:

  • How people touch your body
  • How people see your body
  • How people treat you in sexual situations
  • What you’re comfortable doing to others

Bennett talked about the concern that caring adults may have regarding when to have these conversations.

You can start young with building blocks around consent and boundaries, but then as they grow, you can talk about consent and boundaries in more complex ways.

“Conversations can start in simple ways with young children and can focus more on intimate relationships as they grow up. It’s never too early and it’s never too late to start,” she says.

“It’s really about making it clear that young people get to make decisions about their own bodies and teaching that it’s important for them to respect other people’s boundaries, [and] this looks really different at different ages.”

Be Honest, Break the Ice

Bennett says that feeling nervous to start the conversation, especially with your older kids, is normal.

She suggests when sitting down with your teens, being open about the fact that you feel a little awkward, but you also know it’s an important conversation to have.

Alternatively, you can reference a situation that you and your kid would understand and use that as an entry point.

“You could strike up a conversation about a plotline you saw in a movie together related to consent, boundaries, or healthy relationships. Or, something you saw in a book or a magazine, or something that you witnessed happened at the playground with other people,” Bennett said.

“These are all teachable moments where you can just bring it up. ‘What did you think about this?’ ‘What did you notice about that?’”

Starting with toddlers or early elementary school children may feel soon, but Bennett says that this is a great time to lay foundational building blocks.

This way, young people can understand the concepts of consent and boundaries more generally, and you can aid them in applying them to their lives in lots of different ways.

Building Agency

One way to begin the conversation of consent and boundaries is through showing versus telling.

An example of this is by giving your kids options to enforce their agency in small ways, such as asking them which pair of pajamas they want to wear at night.

“For toddlers in particular, that can be really helpful [by] showing them that you value their thoughts and opinions, and that they get to make decisions for themselves as much as possible,” Bennett says.

Ask Before You Do

You can start with your littles by teaching them to ask before acting on anything involving someone else.

“You want to ask before you do, because they might not want you to, and that’s okay,” Bennett offers as a reminder,” Bennett said. She gave some examples like:

  • asking their friend if they want a hug before they give one
  • asking before you take someone’s snack
  • asking before you jump in and start playing with others

When talking to your kids, incorporate how the opposite is also true — maybe they don’t always want a hug from their friends.

“Or, saying things like ‘you don’t have to kiss or hug anyone you don’t want to, even if it’s grandma, even if they haven’t seen you in a long time, even if they really want to,’” Bennett says.

Bennett says this teaches young people that they get to decide for themselves what they do and don’t feel comfortable with regarding their body.

And, this enforces the fact that no one should be applying pressure for them to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing.

You can also model this behavior on your end to solidify the importance.

This can look like you asking them before you hug them, or asking other adults in your life for consent before hugging or touching them as an ongoing practice.

Middle school is a good time to introduce more specific concepts around asserting boundaries, such as situations connected to bullying, peer pressure, or sexual abuse.

If a young person is feeling pressured, Bennett says an example of asserting boundaries could be, “I don’t want to do that. Let’s do something else instead.”

Noting abuse and manipulation tactics, the director suggests folding in reassurances, such as:

  • “If someone pressures or forces you to do something that you don’t want, it’s their fault, that they’re in the wrong — not you.”
  • If you’ve felt pressured or forced to do something, you can come to me about it right away and that I’ll be here to help you.

After receiving these messages over time, young people may feel more empowered to not only assert their boundaries, but to reach out to the parent or caring adult for help if those boundaries are crossed.

Data shows that when kids age to 15 and older, parents tend to drop the conversations around sex education.

Regardless of when you begin the conversations around consent and boundaries, by high school, many young folks are thinking about or engaging in sex and intimate relationships, making this an ideal time to get concrete with the details in your discussions.

“It gets more about the facts about intimate relationships as they get older,” Bennett says.

Straying away from fear or abstinence-based sex education is important not only to get the facts around safer sex and contraception, but to address the varied ways that sexual abuse can look as a form of abuse and exploitation prevention.

Because not all school systems even require sex education to be fact-based, there’s no guarantee topics around boundaries and consent are being reinforced.

Consider starting those paramount conversations with straightforward questions or reminders such as:

  • “How do you know that you and your partner both want sex?”
  • “You always need to ask for consent if you want to have sex.”
  • “You always have the right to say yes or no to sex.”
  • “If you were in an unhealthy relationship, how would you break up with someone safely?”
  • “If someone is drunk or high, they can’t consent to engaging sexually.”

Emphasis during this stage is needed on both the importance of creating and maintaining your own boundaries while also respecting those of others.

Let’s Talk Month is meant to encourage much-needed conversations between youth and caring adults about sex, sexuality, and bodies, despite the shame and stigma often attached to those topics.

Consent and boundaries is a vital part of those conversations, impacting how we understand ourselves and interact with others, regardless of our age.

You can start on the foundations of consent and boundaries with your toddlers, but it’s also okay if your kids are already in high school — there aren’t any rules on when to begin.

If you’re stuck on how to kick things off, Planned Parenthood has got you covered. Check out their video playlist and parents hub, or point your kids in the direction of their blogs on consent and boundaries.

Remember that your kids want to hear from you, and there’s no wrong time to remind them of the importance of mutual respect, bodily autonomy, and that you will always be a soft spot for them to land.