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How to Talk Consent and College with Young Adults

While the relationship between you and your teen will change over time, you can still be a supportive resource in talking about consent.
Image: A mother and daughter are walking on a grassy path through a park
A mother and daughter are walking on a grassy path through a park.Getty Images

Leaving high school and heading out into the world is one of the biggest changes in life.

Beyond the challenges of dealing with a new schedule, location, and workload, teens must also adapt to a new social life, requiring them to meet new people, make new friendships, and perhaps even forge romantic relationships.

While the relationship between you and your teen will change during this time as well, you can still be a supportive and understanding resource as they navigate their new adult world. This includes, but is not limited to, their sexual relationships.


It’s important! As uncomfortable as it may be, a conversation about sexual relationships coming from a trusted adult is a great way to open the door for positive communication with your young adult, whether you’re starting fresh or reinforcing behavior you’ve addressed from a young age.

It’s also important because sexual violence affects young people more than other age groups. It’s a scary statistic and no one wants to believe their kid could be a victim – or an aggressor. But most assaults don’t happen the way you may think, involving some deranged stranger. In most cases the victim and the perpetrator know each other. And assault is more than the most extreme forms; it isn’t always rape. Assault can include any unwanted sexual touching.


“Have the conversation proactively, but try to bring it up naturally,” says Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard University focusing on human development and psychology. Weissbourd suggests using opportunities as they come up to spark discussions, such as a news paper article, lyric in a song, or scene in a movie.

Jonathan Kalin, the founder of Party with Consent, likes to use the movie “Superbad” in his trainings with students. The plot involves recent high school graduates who are on a quest to hook up with girls before they leave for college. In one scene, they discuss whether or not a girl is going to have sex with one of them. They decide that she is, because she has asked him to help buy alcohol for the party. They go on to talk about girls getting drunk at parties, sleeping with men, and then regretting it the next day. “We could be that mistake!” is the line where Kalin likes to make his point.

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You could also use that movie, or a similar one, as an opportunity to start the conversation and highlight the seriousness of the subject that the movie has turned into comedy. Tricking, coercing, or taking advantage of an incapacitated person are all sexual assault. Psychologist Dr. Bobbi Wegner says she and her colleagues regularly hear stories of sexual coercion, which is when someone is “talked into” a sexual encounter when they initially didn’t want to. She says parents and kids should be aware that this happens more than people think, and often people don’t think of it as assault. It is. If you’d like more information on what coercion and consent looks like, this article from the University of Michigan has numerous examples.

Use Analogies

It’s normal to feel uncomfortable talking about consent and relationships with your kids. If you feel more comfortable talking about sex without saying sex, you can do that too.

Rachel Hanebutt, co-founder of — a sex-education resource made by, and for, young adults — says analogies can be a great way to approach sexual health in a less formal way. She says she’s even thought about making videos with her cat.

Hanebutt says we all have an instinct to know when we’re coercing someone. It’s applying that instinct to any scenario, like trying to pet a cat, which can help make the discussion easier and more effective.

There’s also a popular video produced in 2015 that uses a cup of tea as an analogy. You could watch it together, or send it to your teen to watch on their own.

While some analogies can make a complex issue seem overly simple, any opportunity to start the conversation is better than no conversation at all.

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