The recent Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, is a viral phenomenon among teenagers. Many parents are unsure of how to approach the series or, after watching it, feel confused about what the “next step” should be. I do not recommend that parents promote the show to their children, but some may find that their kids have already watched it.
The show contains many potential triggers for those who have endured trauma and is hard for a well- adjusted adult to watch. The series just got picked up for a second season. Since many teenagers are watching this, parents may want to do so too (if they can handle it) or at least educate themselves on the issues.
I offer the following suggestions to parents as a way of learning from the series.
The book and the Netflix series based upon 13 Reasons Why touches on themes commonly experienced in today’s teenage world: cyber bullying, self harm, sexual assault, drug use, underaged drinking, depression, and loneliness. The topics are approached from the experience and perspective of high school students. The Netflix series presents everything in a very intense way, with traumatic and painful events taking place in every episode.
Some of the episodes may be a trigger for those who have endured traumatic events, so be careful. In spite of this, I believe that the show presents a valid insight into the dynamics at work in the world of our young people, although not every young person experiences all of these aspects in such abundance.
Something which deeply saddened me during the episodes of this series is that Hannah, and pretty much every main character, lacked a trusted, listening adult in which to confide. Her parents were physically present, but emotionally absent, distracted by the financial strain of trying to run a small business. A number of conversations take place in a disjointed, half-attention kind of way, and we watch Hannah turn more and more inward as her efforts to connect fall short.
As adults, it can be hard to listen to young people and not immediately offer advice or “solutions”, but what our young people need most is adults who listen to them, share in their story, and learn how to give advice in a way that is helpful, not shaming or overwhelming. It’s a skill we can all improve.
In working with teenagers, I have seen that sometimes the young people really want to see us put forth the effort to get close to them, to come to know their story, or to find out what is bothering them. They can seem like they are shoving us away, but really they are crying out for help. The characters Hannah and Clay are often seen shoving their parents away, yet desperately trying to connect with them, at the same time. Food for thought.
As a character, Justin demonstrates the devastating effect of not having a parent be a true parent. This mother ends up abandoning him for her addiction and boyfriend and he becomes homeless, turning towards his own addictions and dangerous friends for comfort. Young people need their parents to be the adults, to set boundaries, to demonstrate healthy relationships, and be available to guide and support them through difficulties.
There is nothing wrong with being friendly with our children, but we are not their peers or their friends. They can find friends; they cannot get themselves new parents. If we find that we need healing in some way, investing in our own holistic health is an investment in our children’s present and future, as well, for they learn from us what it means to be an adult.
Hug them when they come home from school, wait up for them and hug them when they come home from parties. This can serve two purposes: reassuring your child of your physical affection for them, but also allowing you to check them over to see if they are ok (looking for injuries, unusual smells, signs of drug or alcohol use). No one knows your child better than you do; if you feel like something is wrong, don’t ignore that. Don’t let them just run upstairs without establishing contact with you.
Clay, in the show, always tried to avoid contact when he was dealing with something, but his parents tried to stay on top of him. Make it a habit now so that it’s the norm later, in the event of any concerns. Your children will probably complain about it, but deep down the stability of their parents presence will bring them comfort in a very unstable world.
Young people, especially our girls, need to know that it’s perfectly acceptable to say “no”, to leave a party, and to turn down an invitation to do something if they feel like it’s not safe. Young people should feel empowered to stand by their beliefs. So often, in 13 Reasons Why, the characters felt something was wrong, but they did not have the courage to speak up. Make a distinction between supporting someone through a hard time and enabling unhealthy behaviors.
Help your children to walk through decisions they are making about activities they are taking part in. If your children are going to a party, what would be areas of a house they would want to avoid being alone in? What kinds of things would they want to avoid eating or drinking? How do they learn to trust their intuition? What are some safe habits to form? We have to be realistic about the situations they may end up in, but having the conversations helps them know what to do if they do end up in those hard situations. If they have watched 13 Reasons Why, it can be a doorway to those encounters with them.
Like the main characters, most of us have ended up in situations we did not foresee or did not think would happen and needed a quick, safe exit. Sometimes those situations have been embarrassing, difficult, or scary. Develop an exit plan with your children so that if they find themselves in that kind of situation, they know they can call upon you without being guilted or shamed.
Conversations about the situation can happen later, but they should feel confident that they can turn to their parents/guardians at any time. Whether it’s texting a code word or symbol and getting a response back that you are coming to pick them up immediately (so they can show their friends they have to leave) or some other strategy, plan one, and hopefully you will never need to use it.
Do some research into the resources available to parents and young people in your area when it comes to dealing with anxiety, depression, stress, addictions, eating disorders and so on. The school counselor is usually aware of what’s available can can point out low cost or sliding scale support, if needed. Support groups and workshops can be helpful when dealing with challenging situations. There are resources out there; learn about them for your own children and share them with your friends.
Make your home a welcoming place for your child and their friends. Clay rarely brought anyone home. When Tony would appear, Clay wanted to hide things from his parents, but his parents would invite Tony to dinner and get to know him. Get to know your children’s friends and their families. You should be able to name them and know where they live.
Most teenagers end up spending more time with their friends at school and in extracurricular activities than they do with their families at home. It’s important to know the personalities and values they are surrounded by during those hours away from home. It requires extra work, being more involved, perhaps even volunteering to coach a sport, but our young people are worth it, aren’t they?
One theme entirely missing from 13 Reasons Why, aside from Tony briefly mentioning that he is Catholic, is the aspect of religious practice and faith. In Christianity, we are taught that God can bring good out of any situation, there is always hope, and suffering can be redemptive. None of the characters, such as Hannah, had any kind of faith foundation to give them a sense of connection, meaning of life, or faith community to turn to outside of their high school community.
Young people who practice a religious tradition are more resilient. Children learn and imitate the religious beliefs and traditions of their parents and grandparents. The heaviness and darkness felt in the 13 Reasons Why episodes often left me commenting to myself that although I know all of the issues (see #1) present in the show are real and a part of high school life, it felt especially dark and heavy because of the absence of hope.
Hope is born of a belief in something greater, but without that something greater, there is no hope. I finished the series convinced of how important faith is for teenagers struggling with such incredibly painful challenges, while reflecting on how faith has helped me through many difficulties I could not have coped with on my own.
Sister Brittany – “Sister B” is a Salesian Sister of St. John Bosco who originally hails from the Chicago area. She is currently the Campus Minister at Mary Help of Christians Academy in North Haledon, NJ, an all girls college preparatory high school. (www.maryhelp.org) Sister B enjoys writing, movies, cooking, and Grumpy Cat. She finds hope in the beautiful faith and courage of young people, and treasures her vocation as a Salesian Sister that enables her to encounter it everyday.
For more resources visit the National Association of School Psychologists .