By Erica Rood, M.A. Ed.

Suicide, sexual assault, physical violence, substance abuse.  These are just a few of the topics addressed in the popular series 13 Reasons Why.  For better or worse, each episode dives into the darker sides of being a teen and displays a shocking glimpse into high school life.   It may be hard for parents to find a bright side in this twisted tale of a young girl whose ultimate solution for handling the challenges of high school is suicide, but they can gain valuable insight and opportunity.

13 Reasons Why reminds us that teens are growing up in a complex world. They are facing challenges that go far beyond friend drama and academic pressure.  Today, teens are exposed to more sex, violence, and indifference than ever before.  Their tendency to be hyper-connected breeds insecurity, anxiety, competition, and bullying.   From Google to Instagram, screens have an undeniable influence on teens’ choices, attitudes, and beliefs about themselves.  In 13 Reasons Why, we see how overexposure and hyper-connectivity impacts teens on a daily basis. Parents can use this as a lens through which to better understand and calibrate with their teen.  

13 Reasons Why gives parents an opportunity to start hard and important conversations.  Many teens are not emotionally or intellectually equipped to handle, let alone understand, what they are facing. It’s important for parents to create a framework and context that helps teens build resilience and awareness.  To start, ask your teen his or her reactions to the series and what parts are most realistic.  Then, listen without judgment, interruption, or preconception. Allow his or her responses to provide you with the valuable insight you need to connect, calibrate, and offer support or further information.  

Use the list below as a guide for continuing the conversations and addressing the more specific topics related to 13 Reasons Why.

  1. Influence of social media. Help your teen identify the positive and negative ways social media impacts relationships.  Ask: Does the quality of a friendship change when it starts online? What is missing from online communication? What are the advantages and disadvantages to using social media as a mode of communication?  In what ways is social media a supportive environment? In what ways is it a harmful environment?
  2. Substance abuse.  Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and vapes are readily available to teens. Parents need to understand the reasons why teens drink or use drugs. Experimenting is not necessarily “normal” teen behavior. Substances are often used by teens to numb deeper wounds.  If you’re suspicious or worried about your teen abusing substances, intervene! In most cases, it is a cry for help and attention.
  3. Revenge.  This is a strong theme in 13 Reasons Why.  The characters seek revenge through threats and downright vicious acts of violence and betrayal. It’s important for teens to understand appropriate ways to handle anger.  Most often, rage and a desire for revenge are the results of feeling vulnerable or threatened.  Teens believe that getting even will lead to acceptance, approval, and relief.  One of the most important actions parents can take is to validate feelings of anger, allow space for it to be felt, and discuss alternatives to revenge.  Parents can reassure their teen that he/she is safe and supported, and they can model positive ways to deal with setbacks and hard feelings.
  4. Popularity.  While many teens desire popularity, few of them understand that popularity is not all it appears to be.  They tend to equate popularity with happiness;  popular people are “perfect” and problem-free.  Parents can help dispel the myths surrounding popularity by asking teens what determines popularity? What are the downsides being popular?  Point out that popularity is a façade. It’s about appearances, conformity, and status.  Whereas real friendships are based on shared values. Real friendships are supportive, encouraging, and lasting. 
  5. Sex and violence. 13 Reasons Why includes explicit portrayals of sexual and physical violence.  It exposes “rape myths” (false, stereotypical beliefs about rape) and “slut shaming” (shaming or stigmatizing girls who engage in sexually provocative or promiscuous behaviors, including being raped.) While these are some of the harder conversations to have, it is essential that parents talk to teens about sex and dating. Teens need to be taught how to set and respect personal boundaries, and make choices that are aligned with their values.

Overall, 13 Reasons Why reinforces the fact that now more than ever, parents need to stay relevant, aware, and engaged.  Teens require a strong support system and opportunities to bolster their self-esteem, strengthen their sense of community, and cultivate the tools to handle the challenges of adolescence.  The Huffington Post noted that one of the biggest failures of 13 Reasons Why is that it never highlights the importance of teens having safe, trusting adult relationships.  While it is true that teens can be incredibly resilient after trauma, they all benefit from having a trusting, caring, competent adult to coach and guide them along the way.

Click here for additional resources on the following topics:

Substance abuse

Suicide

Unwanted sexual attention