Talking to Teens About Sexual Misconduct and Consent Before They Go Away to College

Before your children head off to college, it’s important to have several important conversations with them, including one that addresses explicitly sex. However, this isn’t the traditional “talk” that many parents have with their children. Instead, this dialogue should center around topics such as sexual consent, misconduct, and the various issues related to these topics that frequently appear in college campus news.

As your teenage child prepares to embark on their college journey, having an important discussion with them is crucial. However, we’re not referring to the traditional sex talk, as there’s a high probability that they’re already aware of the three-letter word. Instead, this conversation should focus on the concept of consent, including methods for clearly communicating a refusal to engage in sexual activities and how to handle situations where someone’s actions create discomfort of a sexual nature.

To help make this conversation less uncomfortable for everyone involved, therapists offer some advice on how to approach this sensitive topic with your teenager.

What should WE, as parents, know about this topic?

Kristen Arquette, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Bellevue, WA, explains that teenagers obtain information and misinformation about sex from various sources, including parents, peers, culture, and media. As a result, parents play a critical role in providing the most essential information about sex to their teenagers. One does not need to be an expert in sex or sexuality to have impactful discussions with their teen about sex.

Simply discussing the facts and linking them back to your personal and family values regarding respect for others, sexuality, and sexual health can be very effective.

What kind of manner should I be in so my kid takes me seriously?

According to Arquette, it’s essential to remain calm and positive when discussing sex with your teenager. Encouraging them to communicate their thoughts while actively listening is crucial. It’s important to remember that this conversation should be a dialogue rather than a lecture.

Therefore, it’s necessary to give your teen permission to disagree with you and explore the reasons behind their disagreements. Additionally, as your teen matures, heads off to college, and enters into committed relationships, it’s important to discuss how your expectations for their behavior will evolve and what those expectations will look like. For example, you might express a preference that they wait to engage in sexual activity and drinking but let them know that you’re always there to support them no matter what choices they make.

Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Connecticut, emphasizes that the most effective way to get teenagers to listen is to avoid being preachy. Instead, engage your teen in thoughtful dialogue, treating them as emerging adults. Respect their intelligence and ability to reflect on their experiences.

If you attempt to impose your beliefs on them, they may become resistant to the conversation. However, if you demonstrate a genuine interest in their perspective, you can inspire them to think more deeply about the topic, which is valuable regardless of whether they share their thoughts with you.



Whitney suggests assuming that teenagers have a considerable amount of knowledge about sex, regardless of whether they’ve actually engaged in it. They may have discussed the topic with friends or even been exposed to pornography. However, what they may not be considering are the choices they have regarding sex.

It’s important to highlight that when they live in a dorm, they won’t have any adults regulating their sexual behavior. Therefore, it’s their responsibility to make decisions that are in line with their values and beliefs.

Whitney suggests having a conversation with your teenager about how to handle sexual situations. For instance, you might encourage them to think about what they would say to someone who is pressuring them into having sex and suggest they have a script prepared in case such a scenario arises. It’s important to emphasize that if they don’t want to have sex with someone, they shouldn’t feel compelled to do so. However, if they do decide to engage in sexual activity, they should be sure that it’s what they genuinely want and not just agree to it at the moment, only to regret it later. By having these discussions, your teenager can be better prepared to make informed decisions about their sexual behavior.

How can we eliminate the awkwardness?

Whitney suggests that it’s perfectly acceptable for these discussions to be uncomfortable. Most people aren’t at ease discussing sex in a serious manner. It’s essential to try to remain composed and centered while conversing with your child, but there’s no need to be overly concerned about feeling uneasy.

Allow yourself to feel awkward and have the conversation nevertheless.

Whitney suggests using the college’s policy on sexual expectations as a starting point for a productive discussion. By examining the policy’s stance on issues such as sexual assault and affirmative consent, parents can engage their children in thoughtful dialogue. Parents can also encourage their children to compare their college’s policies with those of their friends’ institutions, considering differences in tone and content.

The objective is to encourage children to contemplate potential scenarios and how things might go awry, ultimately promoting a deeper understanding of these complex issues.

Arquette suggests using relatable topics to establish a connection with your teenager during discussions. She advises allowing the conversation to unfold organically and leveraging teachable moments, such as the lyrics of their favorite songs, current events, or topics covered in their preferred TV shows. Arquette also notes that adolescents are often more comfortable discussing a third party rather than themselves.

She suggests initiating discussions by posing thought-provoking questions, like “if two friends go home together after a party, what do you think each person wanted? Does it mean they’ll have sex?” It’s crucial to model empathy and consideration for all parties involved in your response.

Okay, now how can we be firm about potential consequences?

Whitney recommends expressing your expectations for your child’s treatment of others. While simply telling them not to engage in sexual activities may not be effective, it is possible to convey other essential messages. For example, you can emphasize the importance of using a condom every time and another form of birth control to protect themselves and their partner.

Parents can promote safe and responsible behavior by communicating these expectations without prohibiting all sexual activity outright.


Whitney also recommends setting expectations for how your child should treat their sexual partners. For example, parents can express their disappointment if their child were to engage in sexual assault or behavior that causes harm to the other person. Instead, parents can encourage their child to be a respectful and considerate partner, emphasizing the importance of not taking advantage of someone who may be intoxicated or in a vulnerable state.

This language acknowledges that the child has the agency to make their own decisions while providing a moral framework for making responsible choices.

How alcohol comes into play

According to Whitney,  the significance of discussing the relationship between alcohol and sexual assaults on college campuses. Alcohol consumption can make individuals more susceptible to both being assaulted and perpetrating an assault. This is because alcohol impairs judgment and increases impulsive behavior, leaving individuals vulnerable to potentially dangerous situations.


Whitney emphasizes that even individuals who consider themselves “good guys” can lose control when under the influence of alcohol and end up engaging in non-consensual sexual activities. It’s crucial to communicate to your child that alcohol is never an excuse for hurting someone, regardless of how widespread drinking is on college campuses. Furthermore, it’s essential to talk to your son about how aggressive sexual behavior is often driven by a desire to impress other guys.

Express your concern and disapproval of this behavior, emphasizing that sex should only occur between two consenting individuals and that pressuring someone into sex for the sake of showing off is unacceptable. Encourage your child to make their own choices about sex and other matters and to be strong enough to resist peer pressure.

Remind teens never to leave their cups alone.

Whitney suggests that girls might face pressure to drink more than they are comfortable with, so it’s important to discuss safety measures with them. For example, she advises them to never drink punch or a drink prepared by someone else, as there’s no way to determine the amount of alcohol or drugs that may be in it.

Whitney recommends discussing safety measures with your daughter to avoid risky situations. Encourage her to avoid drinks mixed by others and to stick to beer that she has opened herself. She needs to keep her cup with her at all times to prevent it from being spiked.

If she sets it down, she should get a new one. Additionally, going upstairs to someone’s room can increase the chances of something going wrong, so she should consider staying with the larger group or walking home with a trusted friend if she feels unsure or too intoxicated to make sound decisions.

What other sexual conduct/consent topics should parents zero in on for their kids?

Arquette emphasizes that both girls and boys should be taught that consent can be expressed through verbal and nonverbal cues and that it can be withdrawn at any time. While many teenagers grasp the basic concept of consent – that “no means no” – they often struggle to apply it in their interactions. To address this, it is important to educate teens on how to obtain consent, such as by proceeding slowly and asking questions like “Do you want to continue?” or “Is this comfortable for you?” Waiting for a clear response or reciprocation before moving forward is crucial.

If a person says no, physically recoils, or doesn’t respond, it is essential to immediately stop and ask for their consent before proceeding further.

Another crucial point that Arquette highlights is the importance of educating teens about the various forms of coercion that can be used to manipulate consent. This includes tactics such as persuasion, pleading, guilt-tripping, providing substances, verbal threats, or manipulation. It is essential to pay attention to these warning signs and remove yourself from the situation if any of them occur.

Teaming up with a friend and using the buddy system to intervene or seek help if necessary is also recommended. It is crucial to emphasize to teenagers that if coercion is present in any form, they have not given their consent.


What is the best way parents can earn their teens’ trust and vice versa?

According to Arquette, establishing a trustworthy relationship with teenagers can be challenging for parents. It requires overcoming their anxieties, practicing self-control, setting reasonable expectations, and demonstrating unconditional love, recognizing that teenagers are prone to making mistakes. To achieve this, parents should make an effort to comprehend their teenager’s thoughts, emotions, and actions and convey their understanding, even when they disagree with their behavior.

In addition, Arquette suggests that parents should lead by example when it comes to trustworthiness. This means keeping their promises and following through with commitments while acknowledging that they, like their teenager, may make mistakes. By displaying resilience and openly acknowledging their struggles, parents can provide a powerful example to help teenagers understand that it’s okay to make mistakes and to turn to their parents for support.

It’s also essential to communicate to your teenager that trustworthy behavior is essential for earning your trust. Arquette recommends defining the specific behaviors that are necessary for building trust and linking them to specific benefits, such as being allowed to go out with friends, stay up later, or use the family car.

Good to know…

Arquette notes that sexuality is a dynamic aspect of a person’s life that evolves over time. As such, both you and your teenager’s perspectives and concerns about sex and consent are likely to shift continuously, just as your relationship with each other will develop. Therefore, according to Arquette, it’s more beneficial for teenagers to engage in ongoing discussions about these topics rather than a one-time conversation.

Thus, parents should communicate their willingness to revisit the subject and answer any questions that arise over time.