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A Seattle Psychologist's Take on '13 Reasons Why'

Laura Kastner, Ph.D., offers this advice for talking to your kid about the popular Netflix show

Published on: April 30, 2019

13 Reasons Why

Editor's note: A recent study discovered a spike in suicide rates among boys aged 10 to 17 in the month after the premiere of "13 Reasons Why." Below is a a Seattle psychologist's take on the series. This article was originally published in 2018.

The debate about the harms and benefits of the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" rages on.

This show about every imaginable toxic and pathological version of teen life has attracted teens and angered adults with its spectacular success at shock value.

Will it cause more teen suicide? Does it inspire teens to be kinder to vulnerable peers? Does it implant ideas about rape, glorify victim-hood and promote revenge fantasies? Does it enhance parent-child dialogue about teen problems? Do more kids get help that need it?

Parents usually play the "warn and scorn" side of the debate and teens minimize the show’s downsides and defend its depiction of graphic rape, suicide, violence and extreme cruelty.

As a psychologist, I am struck by the schism between the lofty educational goals that parents have about connecting with their teens through discussing this show’s topics and the failure of achieving them.

Read more from the author

Laura Kastner, Ph.D., is the author of three acclaimed parenting books about staying calm with 3- to 7-year-olds, tweens and teens. Find them now.

Numerous blogs and websites give good advice to parents about talking their teens but fail to acknowledge how resistant teens can be to that agenda. Like most parent talks about sex, drugs, mental health concerns and bullying, teens are likely to blow their parents off and tell them, “It’s just TV. I can handle it.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t keep trying to connect with these dialogues, it’s just that we should acknowledge how challenging they are.

Below I've listed 10 strategies for discussing "13 Reasons Why" with your resistant teen.

A qualifier: None of these strategies will work if parents are belligerent, critical, shaming or distraught. Extreme parental distress can create more allure for taboo topics, make teens even more entrenched in their attitudes or lead to shut-down. The dark themes included in the show are way too important to ignore or mishandle. 

Watch together.

Try to view the show with your teen, if possible. If not, watch some episodes on your own.

If your teen resists discussions, point out that consumption of this show is like listening to profane, racist and sexist lyrics: Your teen needs to prove to you that they can "handle consumption" without negative impact by discussing media intelligently. After all, you pay for your teen's access to media, so you get to be the arbiter.

Don't demonize.

Remember that taboos about topics like sex and violence can be associated with arousal and even pleasure for teens, not just stress.

Flaunting societal transgressions is heady for teens engaged in declaring their independence from conventional parental values. Thus, demonizing "13 Reasons Why" can unwittingly make the topics even more racy and attractive.

Also, even though the characterization of these teen scenarios is problematic, teen behaviors like rape, suicide and bullying are all too common, and we do want to talk about them! We also want to be "credible" and informed adults. Highly reactive responses are not effective in providing the protection for teens we want to nurture through informed discussions.

Debate.

Suggest that you and your teen debate the show's merits. You take the supportive side and your teen can take the critical side, so that you don't fall into predictable roles and power struggles.

Both of you should go to the web and do your homework. It might be painful for you to argue that the show's problems are outweighed by its role in raising public awareness and helping parents open up channels of communication with teens about difficult topics when you don't believe it, but hey, that is how debate works. When you get assigned one side of the debate, you do it.

The upside: You get a window into your teen's ability to see how filmmakers use editing, music, male perspectives, power dynamics and scene creation to dramatize rape, cruelty, violence and domination. Your teen won't earnestly engage if you don't. Maybe you can get a ref and award points for persuasive arguments? Cash prizes might incentivize. 

Let your teen be the expert.

Allow your teen to be the expert on teen opinion about the series (because they are more of an expert on adolescent life than you are). This approach allows you to be humble and seek insight about how teens are processing these hefty issues.

By asking for your teen's expert opinion like an investigative reporter, you are listening and asking questions in a deferent manner. You are also taking some pressure off, in case you have the kind of kid who fears intrusiveness or dislikes talk about private feelings.

Be direct (when possible).

If your teen becomes open to discussion, you can just ask your questions directly.

If your teen expresses feelings of depression, describes suicidal thoughts or discloses experiences of assault or bullying, of course you will seek professional help. However, if your teen discusses shady and disturbing social patterns — the goal is listening, not preaching.

Do your research.

Suggest that you both go to the web to look at mental health links associated with the show's website.

At the beginning of the second season, each of the major actors issues a mental health recommendation as they look directly into the camera. They advise teens to watch the show with parents or other trusted adults and seek help when needed.

Essentially, the show's creators are taking the responsible actions — from a public health perspective — that should have been done before airing the first season.

You and your teen can talk about how the "13 Reason Why" creators want to have it both ways: to depict some gratuitous and arousing scenes to hook the teen audience, but to look responsible to critics and appease upset parents.

Did the show’s creators redeem themselves by their public health efforts? Does your teen know any teens who were helped by viewing the series?

Encourage media literacy.

Talk to your teen about your agenda for media literacy. What is media literacy? Being media literate is being smart about media consumption. Instead of just enjoying and talking with peers about the content of certain music, games, news sites or entertainment, you want your teen to scrutinize how the media creators are making money.

Does your teen understand how savvy media giants are in capturing the teen market with non-stop, exploitive versions of teen sex, pathos and violence? Are any teens they know upset at how this perpetuates stereotypes about all teens being screwed up? What are the harms of overlooking depictions of well-adjusted teens and parents? How does this hurt viewers who are hopeless, despairing and in a downward spiral?

Give your teen this challenge.

What episodes would they create if they were paid a million bucks to create the third season with a goal of showing teens modeling positive coping and problem-solving in times of trouble? Would it sell? Is this part of the problem?

Another challenge: If they were the Public Health Czar in charge of reducing teen suicide, bullying and rape, what would they do about "13 Reasons Why"?

Ask their advice.

One of the biggest dilemmas about intervening on teen problems is that teens often yearn for privacy, distrust adult intrusion and believe that secrets about even various serious trauma should be kept confidential.

Since adults often make mistakes in handling scandalous or terrifying matters, what is your teen's advice to parents who hear about such experiences, either from their own kids or through gossip?

Look to history.

"13 Reasons Why" characterizes the insular social world of modern life for teens in the U.S.

Compared to developing countries or our country up to a few decades ago, teens today have much less time with adults, in the natural world, and in multi-generational contexts. Social media and achievement stress have magnified the pressure teens feel to belong, feel important, fit in, be cool, be accepted, avoid peer scorn and seek status.

Ask your teen to describe how these historical changes might contribute to the problems depicted in this series, at their schools, and in their own life experience. Are there solutions for this dilemma? 

If any or all of these strategies fail, you can at least know that you kept calm, loving and earnest in your efforts to connect and expose your child to important ideas and information. That’s got to count for something. And you can always try again. After all, your teens’ development and social life move a mile a minute. They may want to open their doors to you by next week. 

By in-depth discussions and scrutiny of this show, they learned that you were not daunted by dark matter. They may need some parental light on these shadowy subjects another time.

They may also need your help and support on the themes of this show, so speak with empathy for teen hardships. They deserve it. And bad things really do happen to good teens. All teens need the support of their parents and the adult community.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2018, and updated in April 2019.

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