“13 Reasons Why” is a Wake Up Call to Parents

“13 Reasons Why” is a Wake Up Call to Parents

By now, most of you are familiar with the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” Psychologists and school counselors have contacted parents across the country, warning them about this controversial series. But to the surprise of many parents, their tweens and teens, that they’ve done their best to protect, have already binge watched the show (possibly even twice).

Why the cause for alarm? Because teens have grown attached to the main character Hannah and the 13 reasons why she commits suicide, which is shown in graphic detail. Mental Health professionals are deeply concerned about the impact of this series on vulnerable teens. Suicide is a real issue and the second leading cause of death for children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24.

Why are so many teens drawn to “13 Reasons Why”?

Teens have told me:

  • “It’s realistic, relatable, relevant and that’s what the parties are like.”
  • “All my friends are watching it and I don’t want to miss out.”
  • “I’ve seen lots of my peers commit suicide and want to know why.”

Yes, I did watch the entire series. I wanted to understand why so many middle school and high school kids (especially girls) were binge watching this show. Now I can understand how they got hooked, because I did after one episode. The first time I watched four episodes in a row. (And I didn’t sleep well that night.) Every episode ends with a suspenseful cliffhanger that leaves you hooked by this question: what else happened to Hannah that would drive her to suicide?

Why do teens think this is realistic?

“13 Reasons Why” shows real life painful issues that our teens (especially girls) face today:

  • Being betrayed or rejected by a best friend
  • Feeling like no one understands and that you don’t belong
  • Being bullied, labeled or ridiculed
  • Feeling objectified by boys
  • Being a target of cyber-bullying and gossip
  • Date rape or sexual assault
  • Shame and humiliation

I have seen first hand how these issues impact our teens, both in my practice as a licensed family therapist and with my own daughter. I’ve seen how humiliating it is for girls to have a shameful picture sent around school. I’ve listened to story after story of how mean girls intentionally hurt other girls through social media. Girls can get rejected in real time through multiple Snapchats, watching their “friends” have fun while they are alone at home. I’ve heard the stories of girls being date raped or taken advantage of at parties. All of this takes a toll on their hearts.

The pain is real, yet the girls I’ve seen in my practice were able to heal, become stronger, and move on.

What’s realistic about the show is that there are 13 reasons why Hannah would feel shame, pain, sadness, anger, humiliation, anxiety and trauma, but its not realistic to think that these 13 reasons justify suicide. My concern is that an isolated and depressed kid wouldn’t know that. She would relate to Hannah’s issues, and think that suicide is the only option. However, a healthy 17-year-old girl told me she thought this series discouraged teens from committing suicide, “because it shows the aftereffects and how bad it hurts everyone who survives.” But we can’t know how our children are interpreting the show without discussing it.

What can parents do?

Talk to your teenage daughter and son about “13 Reasons Why.” Yes, we need to talk about suicide, but we also need to talk about the other teenage issues. Use this as an opportunity to learn more about the harder side of their teenage culture. Ask your daughter what she thought about Hannah and if she has ever felt some of those same feelings. These discussions can deepen your relationship with your teen.

In one episode, Hannah’s mom asks her husband, “How did I not know?” It’s crucial that parents know what’s really going on with their teen, even if it’s hard to hear. Throughout the 13 episodes, Hannah’s parents were clueless. They didn’t know who Hannah’s friends were or if she was being bullied. They didn’t know much about their daughter at all.

This should be a wake up call to parents. Often when we see our son and daughter, we only see the tip of the iceberg. We see the outside behavior like sassy attitudes, eye rolls or slamming doors. Yes, our teens are biologically hard-wired for drama but there is a great deal more going on.

“13 Reasons Why” is a reminder of how painful the teenage years can be. We need to get past the outward behavior and dig deep to see what really is going on inside our teens. Are you current with your daughter? Do you know what happened at lunch, what’s going on with her friends, who she likes, who has hurt her feelings, what is stressing her out?

Often we overlook what’s really going on with our teens because we get caught up in our own agendas. With our busy schedules, we get stuck in being a 24/7 monitor saying things like, “Do your homework. It’s time for bed.” We spend our time herding our kids and miss the signs that they are hurting. Monitoring is necessary but it’s not a relationship, it’s a monologue. We will never know what’s really going on inside our teens if we forgo conversation and only monitor.

Parents frequently tell me, “I just want my daughter to be happy. I hate that she’s so negative.” It can be hard to see your daughter in pain, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of telling her, “it’s not that bad.” And if her negativity persists, we can blurt out, “Your being overly dramatic.” The truth is that our teens are not going to be happy all the time – their bodies and brains are changing within an already harsh teen culture.

What your teen needs is what we all need.

Your teen needs a safe place to belong and that starts at home. One teenage girl that I was working with had videotaped a fight with her mom and showed it to me. In the video, the mother screams over and over, “You don’t belong in our family.” Not only is that statement extremely painful, it is a very dangerous thing to say to a child. Our homes need to be places that our teens feel loved, safe and secure.

Oftentimes when our teenagers are hurting, they don’t even have words for what they are feeling. They are in shame, sadness, or despair. In other words, they are submersed in their feelings and feel isolated and alone because they do not know how to express these feelings.

Think about what you would need if you were hurting. You would need someone to listen to you with empathy and compassion. This is not the time to judge, give advice or platitudes. You can help your daughter name some of those difficult emotions like shame, regret, fear, hurt, or humiliation. You may think this will make things worse, but it will actually do the opposite. Listening to her story and naming some of these difficult emotions can have a surprisingly calming effect on your daughter. When she experiences your empathy and understanding instead of shame and criticism, the heaviness of those emotions can start to lift. Once she has calmed down, you can give her some practical solutions or perspectives.

If you are still concerned about your daughter after you talk to her, don’t hesitate to call a licensed psychologist or therapist and get professional help right away.

There are many things you can do to proactively protect your daughter. In Chapter 10, in my book Dial Down the Drama: Reducing Conflict and Reconnecting with Your Teenage Daughter, I discuss What Your Daughter Needs To Thrive, which includes a flourishing home environment, a place to belong, and a team of supportive adults.

The middle school and high school years are not all negative like this series depicts, but it’s also not all happy, either. Just like life, there are ups and downs. It’s important to make room for all experiences. Many beautiful gifts can come out of the difficult parts of life, like love, compassion, empathy, kindness, generosity and purpose.

1 Comment

    This quote jumped out at me—“We spend our time herding our kids and miss the signs that they are hurting. Monitoring is necessary but it’s not a relationship, it’s a monologue. We will never know what’s really going on inside our teens if we forgo conversation and only monitor.”….and I am finding myself doing that…I realized I must get beyond the herding and dig deep. Awesome blog! Thank you! Looking forward to hearing you on Ed’s show on Weds!

    May 17, 2017 at 11:45 pm

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