(No season two spoilers here, just some conversation.)
I watched the first season of 13 Reasons Why, and I’m moving slowly through the second – so I really don’t even have any season two spoilers for you.
But as the show takes hold of its audience, I can’t help but see and hear a lot of the conversations happening around it. I’m not here to tell you whether or not you or your kids should watch it. My kids, at 12 and 9, are way too young to watch it, so that isn’t even a consideration yet in my house.
But as a counselor, I think there’s a few things that need to be noted about this show, especially for parents that have decided to take on these complicated topics with their kids.
I do believe that this is a show that parents should be watching, for lots of reasons – namely, to get some insight into the differences of how our kids’ world may look from the one that we grew up in. The social pressures that technology brings into our kids’ lives is one that we probably don’t understand as well as we think we do, and this show does a good job of showing the – at times very extreme – possible impact of that.
So, whether you’ve decided to watch with your kids or not, I’ve got some thoughts on some of the messages within the show, and how to start the conversations with your kids around them.
Adults Are Dumb
This is a theme that was reinforced a million times over season one, and in the episodes of season two that I’ve seen, hasn’t gotten any better. This is a problem for parents, because it really firms up the idea that if something bad is happening, there is no one that can competently help teenagers that are dealing with severe and traumatic events.
To Parents Watching With Their Kids: I think it’s really important to admit to our kids that adults don’t always do things right, but a lot of what happened in this show seems extreme. Talking to your kids and identifying adults that are safe in their life, and what they would expect if they approached those adults with some of the issues that these characters are dealing with is a great conversation starter.
Additionally, talking through what those initial conversations would look like. How does it feel to start hard conversations with an adult, when you know that the topics are going to be uncomfortable, and probably have consequences that will impact your friends, or people that you know, in unexpected ways? How can we make those conversations easier?
To Parents Not Watching With Their Kids:
Relationships with your kids are so important. The adult characters here all believe that their kids are good kids that would come to them if something is wrong, but they haven't really built the relationships that would pass that test. They ignore blatant warning signs and even cries for help. The teenage characters are very aware of the lack of involvement their parents have in their lives, and all of the ways that they are ignorant to what is going on. The parents here have missed so much that these kids are too far gone – even if they wanted to tell them about their lives or friendships, where would they start?
We can learn from this. We can begin by providing support and encouragement to our kids, unconditionally, and even when they don’t expect it. How can you turn towards your child – regardless of their age – to build up your relationship with them?
As parents, it’s our job to give our kids a safe place to land. As they age, when they encounter kids at school, or even other adults, that do things that tear them down, if we have given them a foundation of encouragement and support, then we are on the right track.
Everyone is Bad
Similar to the above theme, where the adults are incompetent and unhelpful, the show also has another concerning theme – in which everyone else takes on accountability for other people’s choices. We see this in season one, when everyone is essentially blamed for Hannah’s decision to take her own life. In addition to this is the idea that everyone going forward is defined and haunted by the mistakes or bad decisions that they made and seemingly always will be.
The truth is that while people make mistakes and often treat others carelessly – especially teenagers, who are developmentally in the stage in which they are trying to determine their own character in the midst of peer pressure – no one has control of other people’s choices.
Hear me correctly – bullying is a real issue that is a problem all over our country. But another issue that we often fail to address within that topic is that we don’t often provide the support and encouragement to the people that need it the most - whether they are bullies or victims of bullying.
The problem that I have with this show is that the character’s redeeming qualities are often glossed over by their mistakes, which can reinforce for our kids that the bad choices they make will always overshadow the good ones, leading to feelings of hopelessness.
To Parents Watching With Their Kids: This show does a lot with the perspectives of each character, and does show that often hindsight (or the perspective of another person) can fill in some blanks that we weren’t aware of. This is a great discussion to have with kids. Knowing what each character knew in the moment, and not what they learned after the fact, or what we saw from other character perspectives, what choices were good ones? What would your kids have done differently? Which characters have redeeming qualities that we can highlight, even in the midst of grief, mistakes, and trauma?
Parents Not Watching With Their Kids: When our kids make mistakes, it’s important that we help them to learn from them, but not be defined by them. As we come across opportunities to learn (mistakes, or bad choices), emphasizing the other options that are/were available for the next time a situation happens can be the learning opportunity that is needed. This helps kids to be able to critically think and identify new solutions, so they don’t continue unhealthy behaviors.
This also reinforces that even though they make mistakes, you still see the potential for making better choices going forward, giving them the freedom to try on other choices next time.
Mental Health is Irrelevant
If I could soapbox for just a minute – there are about 50 instances that I could list from this show in which counseling would provide some support and guidance for these kids. What strikes me is that mental health is not ever addressed directly by the show. Instead, these traumatic events are shown as though they are normal, day-to-day occurrences that happen to everyone and can and should be handled by the individual.
But, when people don’t know how to cope with their circumstances or relationships, counseling is exactly the answer to provide them with the tools that they need to bounce back. When trauma happens, counseling is exactly the answer to provide them the opportunity to process the events fully, and make sure that their narrative going forward is an accurate representation of reality.
Depression, anxiety, trauma, social skills, anger, narcissism, deviance – there are so many instances within this show in which the characters could benefit from mental health supports.
To Parents Watching With Their Kids: Reinforcing the message that any of these kids could have gotten support from outside of their school if they had chosen to is a really important one. How are they taught to react when they see bullying in their school? What are the pros/cons/fears of reacting in that way? Why did these characters respond in the way that they did? What happens if an adult does fail to respond appropriately?
What mental health support could each of these characters benefit from? If Hannah had seen a counselor, how might her story be different? What about Clay? Tyler? Bryce? What may have kept them from getting that help?
To Parents Not Watching With Their Kids: How do your kids feel about mental health? Is it foreign? Something that only crazy people deal with? Does your family reinforce this message?
What do your kids do to cope with loneliness, anger, sadness, anxiety, or just everyday pressure? Do they have healthy coping mechanisms? Do they have supportive relationships? Mentors? What are some additional supports that could be utilized if those go-to methods aren’t working, or something more severe happens? What if they recognize unhealthy coping skills in their friends?
These Shows Are Realistic
Yes, we live in a society in which suicide, school shootings, sexual assault, and other traumas are in the news daily. But while that doesn’t mean that every school is going to experience all – or any – of those things, it does mean that we have to provide context to our kids for the things that they will see happening around them, if not at their own school, in communities nearby. The idea that one school would experience all of these things at once is most definitely fiction, and the circumstances that each of these things are built on are also fiction.
To Parents Watching With Their Kids: Your main job in watching this with your kids is to identify fiction for what it is. These stories, while seemingly realistic, are sensationalized fiction, and your teens need to know this. Jumping in when things are blatantly unrealistic is important, because we can easily get swept up in the drama. And this stuff is heavy.
But don't leave it there. Ask them what their reality looks like in comparison. What do conversations about suicide, school shootings, sexual assault, bullying, etc, look like at their school? What more could be done? What is helpful, and what isn’t? What is missing from the show that would make it more true-to-life?
Parents Not Watching With Their Kids: While the show is fiction, it is important to know that these are conversations that still need to happen. If we guard our kids from the gratuitousness gore that is in the show, that’ s fine, but pretending as though none of these things happen in the world is not.
Does your child see bullying? What does it look like? What do conversations about active shooter drills involve at their school? What do they feel could happen to feel safer at school?
Even though the conversations may be difficult, opening the doors for them can be the beginning of showing that they can trust you with difficult things. Voicing your concerns in a way that is solution-focused (what can be done? How can we help? What would be better?) rather than fear-based (it’s so terrifying that you have to deal with this. There’s nothing we can do) can be a helpful posture for these conversations.
The truth is that as our kids age and are expected to keep up and understand current events, they know about what is happening all over the country. It’s impossible not to. So having preemptive conversations about their feelings, experiences, and fears gives you a leg up with them.
If we instead decide to bury our heads in the sand and pretend as though these things aren’t happening, we continue to perpetuate the problem by not providing our kids with the tools to cope, and empowering them to truly speak up and feel safe doing so.
13 Reasons Why gives us a place to start. Even if we don’t allow our kids to watch it, if they are a certain age, they will already know about it, and hear about what it is. Don’t let the opportunity to have uncomfortable conversations pass – the more you are open to listening to what their world looks like, the less you risk looking like one of the adult characters in the show.
Need more support than what a blog post will give you? Need help building relationship with your kids, or others in your life so you can have these tough conversations? Contact me here to learn more about my services.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor serving South Carolina. She provides relationship and identity counseling online for busy moms and professionals. You can read more about her here.