13 Reasons Why Not

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:

13 Reasons Why Not

Episode 024 · Duration: 00:11:28

13 Reasons Why Not

Are you struggling with how to help your teenager with all the online content that’s available? If you’re a parent, particularly if your kids are teenagers, you’ve no doubt heard about the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why.

It’s a very powerful series.

It’s the story of a high school girl, Hannah who committed suicide. The story is told through the eyes of her friend Clay, by way of a series of tapes she made prior to her death, telling the story of the people and events that led up to her decision to end her life. The scenes go back and forth between the present, which is narrated by Clay, and the past, narrated by Hannah. The plot revolves around the tapes Hannah made prior to ending her life, being passed to all the kids and a school guidance counselor whom she felt were relevant to her decision to commit suicide.

The series is extremely well done, well acted, and compelling. It opens many questions and opportunities for discussion and values clarification for teenagers.

It’s a drama, so it takes artistic license with realism. For instance, a distressed teenager producing a series of well thought out tapes and creating a way to circulate them to the people she wants to listen to them, and keep them away from others is, of course, pure fiction.

But, there is enough realism within the series that kids will relate to the characters, the dialogue, and the emotions in it. I found myself remembering my own adolescent experiences as I watched the series.

And yet, this series should never have been produced and may have already contributed to successful teen suicides, and will undoubtedly influence others.

Social-Emotional Independence

In childhood, friendship matters greatly to kids, but their overall emotional health is primarily influenced by their families. When kids come from homes where they are loved, supported, and have positive roles: they do pretty well. Of course, if they’re being bullied or scorned in school, that will hurt them deeply, but their main source of well being is from the home. If something is going badly at school, parents will generally know about it and will take up an advocacy role.

Teenagers are different. Adolescence is that transitional time between childhood and young adulthood. During this time, kids are moving towards their social-emotional independence. It’s during this time that kid’s social-emotional well-being is increasingly influenced by their peer group.

Teenager's social-emotional well-being is increasingly influenced by their peer group. Click To Tweet

Kids are not good at getting their emotional needs met by their peers or meeting their friends’ emotional needs particularly well either. They are learning! During this time when kids are looking for social success, they are very vulnerable to slights and bad behavior that can hurt very deeply. In this world of beginning social independence, kids can be awkward, bad at knowing the impact they have on others, and in their quest for social relevance,

In this world of beginning social independence, kids can be awkward, bad at knowing the impact they have on others, and in their quest for social relevance, cruel. All kids experience a certain amount of hurt and pain that comes during this period of social development. Yet, kids who are experiencing or have experienced instability at home, kids who are shy, emotionally sensitive, a bad fit for the social culture at school, or have mental health or other challenging issues that make social success more difficult, they are vulnerable to even greater hurt and emotional pain. Gay and trans-gendered kids are particularly vulnerable.

Understanding Their Pain

So, when teenagers are looking to be accepted socially by their peers and they don’t have a reliable, socially accepting place, they lose confidence, their self-esteem goes down, they often get depressed, and of course they can, as a result, have suicidal thoughts. Worse yet, if they’re subjected to public humiliation and traumatized, suicidal thoughts and actions are even more common.

The final episode of 13 reasons shows Hannah’s actual suicide and it is a painful, messy, and traumatic thing to watch. The producers tell us they didn’t want the suicidal act to be attractive or sugar coated which is good. So instead the scene is extremely traumatic and I imagine, for kids identifying with Hannah, profoundly traumatic.

The fact is, adolescence is a high-risk time of life for depression and suicide. Why?

  • Kids don’t fully understand death. They can’t fully conceptualize its permanence.
  • They don’t feel that their own social-emotional well-being is under their own control.
  • Teenagers tend to be impulsive, dramatic, and seek out risky behaviors. They tend to downplay the negative sides of high-risk behaviors. They don’t understand the negative impact it will have on so many others.
  • Simply put, they aren’t grown up and they are getting a lot of challenging input.

So, why anyone would produce a story aimed at teenagers with the message that you can achieve social relevance with suicide? It is simply put, a really wrong minded thing to do. It will definitely get viewed, make money, and yet certainly add to the likelihood of suicides.

If the producers want to make an argument that there are other important messages, or that it spurs discussion, I’m sorry, one death is one death too many. There’s a better way to have a discussion. This is not an educational production, it’s commercial and its distribution is widely available. So most kids will see it without any adult knowing or helping them process it. It doesn’t help that the adults in the series are reduced to ineffectual caricatures and the school guidance counselor makes Hannah feel that she provoked her own rape and doesn’t pick up on her obvious suicidality.

This series is just more evidence that it’s harder to be a teenager and the parent of a teenager in today’s world. Family and community culture is competing with online culture and influences of which there are plenty. More than ever, we need strong, engaged, and healthy families and strong, engaged, and healthy schools that actively promote and resource positive peer culture.

It’s harder to be a teenager and the parent of a teenager in today’s world. Click To Tweet

What You Can Do About It

What’s a parent to do? We only have one choice. We can find the opportunity that this situation presents and engage it. If your kid watched or is watching the series, get involved with a discussion with them. There is a post series discussion video with the actors, the writer, the producer, and mental health professionals that will be important for every kid who watches the series to view.

This will help them see the actors as real people and not as the characters they played. It will also spur discussion about many topics including school culture, adolescent sexual culture, sex stereotyping, rape, misguided loyalties, bullying, confronting bullying, depression, suicide, helping others, trusting and talking to adults, social media and its impact on adolescent social life.

While I wish this series wasn’t so widely available to teenagers, it is, so we have to accept that our kids live in a world where a ton of inappropriate information is out there and address it.

No kid should watch this series without processing it with a caring, thoughtful adult. It’s powerful and moving and kids will identify with it and be moved by it. We need to help them process it and help them remember that it’s dramatic art and it is not real life. Kids will be more open to talking about their thoughts and feelings about the series if there are other teenagers participating. So, have your son or daughter invite friends over to watch the post-series discussion video together, and talk about it. Oh yea, add pizza and ice cream to the invitation and you’ll have more invite acceptances.

Please feel free to come to my website at neildbrown.com and sign up for my weekly newsletter where there is plenty of helpful stuff there right now, and lots more in the pipeline.

And please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.

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