When you watch 13 Reasons Why (it’s more detailed and different from the book), it will (hopefully) start a discussion about the tough topics with your teens. Whether they’re 13 or 18, they’re either going to be dealing with ALL of these issues, or already have. I found the Netflix series terrifyingly accurate as far as the high school experience goes. It also sheds a light on our failures, as parents: what we don’t always notice, what we could do to try and prevent tragedy, and more.
I’ve seen many parents (and news outlets, and schools) say they DO NOT recommend 13 Reasons Why for middle schoolers. I disagree, with one exception: you (hopefully) know your child best. If you don’t think they can handle it, let them know you’ll revisit the option of watching it in the future. If they’re struggling with depression, self-harm, eating disorders, or suicidal thoughts, it could be a trigger for them.
I think kids will find a way to watch it whether we allow them to or not, which is why I recommend watching WITH your teen. Grace (13) and Nell (16) and I watched both seasons together and it sparked some seriously deep conversations, without them being put on the “spot” or me being “that mom”.
One caveat to watching with the teens: KEEP THE REMOTE HANDY. I know many parents don’t censor what their teens watch, but I do to an extent. I fast-forwarded through several of sex scenes. I also skipped the rape scenes and the graphic discussions about rape. Grace covered her eyes and ears during several scenes, but I don’t feel that took away from the message as the tough scenes were mentioned many times and referred to throughout both seasons.
Mental health issues
The series covers a myriad of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. Many kids don’t realize when they are depressed, and parents don’t always recognize the signs. Watching the show together can open up a dialogue where you ask your teen if they’ve ever felt like Hannah, or Skye, or whichever character is going through their issues at the time. If your teen is more closed off to having a conversation, try open questions such as “what do you think you’d do if what happened to Hannah happened to your best friend?”—you’re not directly asking them what they would do, but you get to hear their response and reflections and learn from them.
This is a tough one for most parents because they don’t want to admit that their teens may be self-harming. Self-harm comes in many ways, but one of the more well-known ways is by cutting. When I was a young teen (as young as 12 or 13), I cut myself often. Not to die, but just to feel the physical pain and hopefully replace the mental pain (and hell) I was living in. When my mom found out, there was no discussion. She said she was going to send me to a mental institution if I did it again, and she put all the knives up. I never even cut myself with a knife.
If your teen wants to self-harm, they will find a way. If you overreact, they will just learn to hide it better. I started cutting on my arms with a nail or razor or whatever sharp object I could find, but eventually resorted to cutting my legs with a soda can tab that I had broken in half. That’s how easy it is to self-harm. Don’t bury your head in the sand on this one, folks.
Sexual assault and rape culture
I’ve watched this show twice now and both times I get so pissed (so pissed!) when I have to see Bryce’s stupid face. He is the poster child for rape culture. The guys have sex with 25 girls, usually talking them into it or pressuring them in some way, then brag about it and they’re the hero while the girl is a “slut”. They’re athletes so the coaches and the teachers turn a blind eye. “Boys will be boys”…”locker room talk”…
Pssst… I’m a mom of three girls, but moms of boys, this is a golden opportunity to talk to them about consent!
Reaching out to trusted adults when you need help
Both the kids and the adults failed Hannah in 13 Reasons Why. They also failed Skye, Tyler, Jessica, and basically every main character in the entire show. However, in the second season, it’s clear that the kids should be reaching out to trusted adults and they aren’t (especially with Tyler in the later episodes of season 2). Now is a good time to talk to your kids about who they can reach out to. If they don’t feel comfortable coming to you, perhaps they have an aunt or an older cousin that could be their trusted adult. If their guidance counselor isn’t offering the resources they need, consider getting them an actual counselor off-campus. If your child reaches out for help, indirectly or directly, in a big or a small way, get them the help they need and don’t stop until they’ve been helped.
Grace kept saying “ohmygosh I LOVE THE GAY KIDS”… she is super pro-LGBT ally in every way possible and just melts when she sees two girls or two guys together because she thinks it’s the sweetest thing. The series does a great job of showing hetero couples and LGBT couples as basically the same (neither is normal/abnormal). During the second season, one of the characters publicly admits she is a lesbian (she previously struggled with this), and it was perfectly done. It wasn’t a big to do, it was just her coming to the realization and working through it.
The cast of 13 Reasons Why is fairly diverse, both in size and color. So many shows on television (and yes, even Netflix) are a blizzard of white people: the perfectly blonde, pale lead. Their idea of diversity is throwing in a brunette or someone that’s a size 5 instead of a size 0. Many times, my girls noticed the appearance of the characters and said how they loved that they weren’t all white and blonde (in different words). Girls especially can be extremely self-conscious when all they see are perfect airbrushed models on every screen, billboard, music video, and red carpet. 13 Reasons Why did a great job of showing characters that were real.
The jury is still out on this one because in some ways, I do think 13 Reasons Why glamorizes Hannah’s suicide. When you commit suicide, you don’t get to carry on for the next year being involved in your peer’s and families’ lives. It just doesn’t work that way. When you choose to kill yourself, you’re dead. You’re gone. Sure, there are memories, but nothing like this. And even if you did leave tapes behind, the hysteria of it all would die down in a few weeks. I mean, school shootings that kill dozens stop being talked about after a few weeks so surely one person’s suicide would be as well.
On the other hand, I think it teaches our kids that suicide isn’t the answer and that it hurts SO many people. As long as you’re watching it with your kids and talking to them throughout the episodes, I don’t think they will feel like suicide is glamorized. If they’re depressed, alone in their room watching it and crying, wanting their lives to end…then yeah, that’s possible. They may think this is a good way to “go out”. But, that gives you all the more reason to watch it WITH them instead of saying they can’t watch it.
The power of words
One of the biggest lessons in 13 Reasons Why is the impact your words (and actions – or lack thereof) can have on not just one person, but everyone. So many events happen in this series, and the words and actions are followed…meaning you get to see how they affected others the next day, the next week, and even the next year with season 2.
I’ve talked to my girls about bullying a lot because they’ve both been bullied relentlessly at times. Bullied kids are more likely to become bullies, so I’m very careful and watch what they do/say and how they treat other kids. I don’t want my kids to be bullies. 13 Reasons Why covers the bullying issue in depth in pretty much every single episode.
It’s a good opportunity to talk to your kids about what is/isn’t bullying, and how they should speak to other kids (especially the outcasts), what they should do when they see someone being bullied, etc. Each kid is different so telling them they should stand up for bullied kids won’t always work. While Grace would gladly do that, and knock someone out for bullying, Jenelle would have a total panic attack even thinking about approaching a bully. Talk your teens through an approach that works for them individually rather than giving blanket statements about what “should” be done.
A very dangerous feeling, isolation is common among teens. 13 Reasons Why shows more than one character feeling isolated, in their own way. As a parent, take this opportunity to really watch and listen—to the show and to your kids—because the signs are almost always there, we just don’t pick up on them very well. Especially in season 2, I feel that Tyler’s parents could have done a better job in picking up on the isolated feelings (as well as the bullying). When I take my girls on mother-daughter dates, we talk about how they’ve been feeling over the past week or two and many times I notice isolation comes up. It’s okay to feel that way, but it’s important to talk through it.
The “blank” feeling Hannah experiences in some of the episodes during season 1 is how I’m feeling with life right now. I have been open with the girls about this, and Jenelle has admitted she feels the same way sometimes. Depression takes on many forms, and indifference is one of them. Ever since our neighbor committed suicide in our front yard, we’ve been feeling that isolation (from other neighbors and kids at school saying we were “murderers” to having to move out of our very first home as a family… the isolation is tragic).
The show takes us through many situations teen girls put themselves in (or were put in by others or even by chance) that were dangerous and terrifying. While it’s never a girl’s fault if she is sexually assaulted or taken advantage of, there is power in being aware of your surroundings and avoiding creeps like Bryce altogether.
Should our girls have to avoid parties because they are at risk of being drugged and raped? NO! But, it’s the world we live in and it’s important that our girls know they do have the power to stand up for themselves…and if something does happen, they have the power to tell a trusted adult or even a police officer about it. Work hard to empower your teens to stand up for themselves, even when it’s difficult.
Talk to your girls about the lies boys tell, and talk to your boys about consent. Teach your boys that no means no, and unless she actually says “yes”, she may be saying no as well. Teach your girls to verbalize “NO” if they mean no, and to CALL YOU if they get into a situation they need to get out of. You can never be too careful.
Life is worth living, and could always be worse
One of the most profound realizations of watching 13 Reasons Why was how this all happens on a regular basis in high schools (and middle schools) across the country. Talk to your teens about their own lives and how blessed they are to have _______. My girls were so thankful that they hadn’t been subjected to most of what Hannah has been.
Jenelle is 16 and hasn’t even kissed a boy. Yet she’s been called a slut, whore (and more) just because she “dated” boys. She hates it but knows it could be much worse, especially with the internet and smartphones. If she kisses a boy and there’s a picture, if she goes down the slide and the wrong angle is seen, there are a million things that “could be worse”. The girls and I had a long talk about how thankful they are for their current lives, even though they aren’t easy by any means. Everything could always be worse.
Overall, 13 Reasons Why is an amazing series that NEEDS to be watched by every parent of teens. The subject matter IS difficult and IS mature, but it’s honest and real. I guarantee your kids (even younger than teens) have heard most of this stuff at school already anyway. Why not take charge of the narrative and create an open dialogue with your teens instead of hiding from it? I wish Hannah’s parents would have…
This post originally appeared on Slap Dash Mom. It has been reprinted with permission.
Sadie Lankford is an Arizona transplant, single mom to 3 tween/teen girls and blogger at Slap Dash Mom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.