How to Talk to Your Teens About Steubenville

by Dr. James G. Wellborn

"Many of the things we learned during this trial that our children were saying and doing were profane, were ugly . . .[Parents need] to have discussions about how you talk to your friends, how you record things on the social media so prevalent today and how you conduct yourself when drinking is put upon you by your friends."

Judge Thomas Lipps

Sentencing, Steubenville, OH


What a profound, senseless tragedy unfolded in the heartland. A teenage girl will be dealing with the emotional and social effects of sexual assault for many years to come. At least two teenage boys have derailed their own lives by thinking it is OK, even funny, to sexually assault and then degrade a drunk, unconscious girl. The callousness and cruelty of other teenagers toward a vulnerable peer who was sexually assaulted has shocked and dismayed the community of adults (especially those who don’t spend much time with teenagers). There may be more to follow if it turns out that the adult mentors in these boy’s lives were too uncomfortable with or too accepting of this behavior to hold them accountable. Could any of these teenagers be your kid?

What’s a parent to do?

This terrible situation is layered with important topics teenagers need to think through. It can be the catalyst for you to wade into conversations on topics you have avoided, put off or not revisited recently: alcohol and drug use, sexual decision making, bullying and cruelty, character and morals. Parents know it is important to talk to their kids about these issues. They just don’t always know what to focus on and what to say. Here are some suggested topics of conversations. 

1. Alcohol and drugs. Bad things are more likely to happen to people when they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Talk to your kid about the problems with alcohol and drug use. Guys are vulnerable to being physically assaulted (e.g., fighting). Girls are vulnerable to being sexually assaulted. If you don’t have an alcohol and drug policy for your kids, create one. 

2. Sexual decision making. Sex is fun. Sex is exciting. Sex is complicated. Sex carries risks and responsibilities. It can tempt you to do things you later regret (especially while under the influenced of alcohol or drugs). Decisions to be sexually intimate require conversations to make sure it is something both participants want (and for which they are willing to accept the consequences). Kids need to know about sex to be able to talk about it. If you haven’t had the sex talk with your teenager, that’s the place to start. But that’s not enough. Your kid (girls AND boys) needs to know how to handle being pressured to do sexual things; what to do, what to say. You need to help your kid determine their sexual limits before they are in the moment.     

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3. Consent. People have a fundamental right to determine what happens to their bodies. No one has the right to impose their will on another person for convenience, desire, pleasure or amusement. It is despicable to engage in a physical relationship without the consent of the other person. In many jurisdictions, the presence of even traces of a mood altering substance can justify a charge of sexual assault due to diminished capacity to give consent. Your kid needs to know that sex without consent is wrong (and it is a crime). 

4. Dignity. A person of good character, like your kid, recognizes that all human beings are worthy of humane treatment regardless of their social status or faults, especially the vulnerable or disadvantaged (including those disadvantaged by a bad reputation). This means people should not be shamed or humiliated. The pervasiveness of reality shows, shock radio and hate TV (e.g., Jerry Springer-like) has seriously undermined the recognition that human beings deserve to be treated with dignity. Take time to talk to your kid about the temptation to mock and put down others. Discuss how you expect them to treat everyone, especially people who have flaws and disadvantages. Help them recognize the temptation to judge others; and the importance of leaving judging to those better equipped to know a person’s inner soul. 

5. Respect. Every human being deserves to be treated with respect. This means respecting yourself; this means respecting others. A person who respects themself doesn’t engage in despicable behavior. They don’t put themselves in a position to compromise their own dignity. A person who respects others doesn’t take advantage of or mistreat others. Talk to your kid about respecting themselves and other people. 

6. Responsibility. When someone is victimized, people often think the victim somehow brought it on themselves. “Of course this wouldn’t have happened if she would have . . if only he would have . . .or if she hadn’t really deserved it.” People certainly have a responsibility to avoid making foolish or risky decisions. But no matter how foolishly or knowingly a person may end up in a vulnerable, shameful or dangerous situation, it does not relieve others of the responsibility to treat that person decently. Make sure your kid knows what you expect them to do when they see someone being mistreated or taken advantage of (later, they can be really mad at the person for being an idiot in the first place).

7. Courage. People with character have the courage of their convictions. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. Your kid should be a person who courageously stands up for what they believe is right. If someone is being mistreated, they should help. If someone is being taken advantage of, they should help. If someone is in trouble, they should help. The world needs all the courageous people we can get. Talk a lot about all the forms of courage. Do everything you can to instill this virtue in your kid.    

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8. Safety. Teenagers are notorious for not paying enough attention to potential risks. They need to think through how to have fun while also remaining safe. Make up scenarios where personal safety may be threatened. Have your teenager identify what they would do to be safe in these situations. 

9. Cruelty. Humans seem to have a tendency toward cruelty. It is at least in part driven by deep feelings of inadequacy, vulnerability, jealousy, anger, revenge or unfairness  It is extremely destructive. The antidote to cruelty is compassion and humility (there but for the grace of God . . .). Talk about the reasons people do embarrassing or humiliating things. Focus on how your kid would feel if they were in that situation. Help your kid identify how to be more kind and compassionate by what they say (and don’t say) about other people. After all, if you don’t have something nice to say about someone . . .

10. Humiliation as humor. Teenagers (and far too many adults) often have difficulty recognizing the difference between humor and humiliation. This is particularly true of guys who are in the grip of guy rules (for example, teenage boys). Humor should not degrade (though it may embarrass or gently bring someone down a peg). It should not be sadistic (though it may be acerbic or painfully truthful, for a purpose). Humor is a way to laugh at the absurdity of life (or ourselves) and as a way to cope with tragedy. It should not be used to hold someone’s weaknesses up to ridicule or as a weapon of revenge. Talk to your teen about how to recognize if they are going too far with their jokes, or laughing at the jokes of others that are cruel or degrading. Remind them of what it felt like when that has happened to them. The problem is that all of us have, at some point, laughed at this kind of humor; especially teenagers. The point is people should strive to uplift and enlighten not drag down and degrade. 

11. Media and Music. You have heard this before from every person who talks about kids and teenagers. The message kids get from various forms of media can be a serious problem. Talk to your kids about the appropriate and acceptable use of social media. Set ground rules. Monitor their use. Shut it down when they don’t follow your rules about what they can and can’t say. Pay close attention to how your kid is using this wonderful, horrifying technology. Know what music your kid is listening to.  Music that degrades women, characterizes kindness and compassion a weakness, glorifies violence and amorality and promotes a life style of living for the moment through the fulfillment of immediate desires will influence the listener’s priorities and values. While you’re at it, don’t forget about the moral implications of the actions of video game characters. All the work you are doing to help your kid develop a strong value system and be a person of good character can be chipped away by these insidious influences. Have them talk to you about whether or not they agree with the values promoted by these media outlets. Make your kid prove it isn’t influencing them (by living a more noble code). 

Look at all these weighty topics! This is why the conversations are so difficult. Don’t put it off. You may find yourself even more proud of the person your kid is becoming. You may be worried or even shocked to hear what your kid has to say about acceptable ways to think about and treat others. Take time across the next several weeks to keep coming back to these issues. Whether you are gratified or horrified, put a reminder on your calendar to revisit these issues again in 6-12 months.     

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Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood, Tennessee focusing on adolescents and families.  He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting where strategies for addressing alcohol and drug use, talking to teens about alcohol and drugs, signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug problems and constructing an alcohol and drug policy are among the 79 chapters on typical teenage issues.  You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn or sign up for his monthly newsletter on parenting teens by visiting his website at

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