In April of 2017, I watched the first season of 13 Reasons Why. If you are unfamiliar with this show, I’m guessing your kids are young or you don’t have Netflix. For those of us navigating the scary waters of high school issues, this show has many things we need to discuss. After the first season, I wrote a blog about that experience. At the time, my oldest was a freshman and my youngest was a 6th grader. I now have a senior and freshman and once again, I was challenged to mentally and emotionally tackle this very hard hitting series. As I have shared before, we have traveled the road of mental health challenges with our oldest daughter. This is the same kiddo that introduced me to this series. To say that our conversations about this show are hard is an understatement. I see us in these kids. I see her friends in these kids. I see the unique struggles of this generation in these kids.
Having spent much of my adult life in the teenage realm, I feel deeply about the topics in this show. Unlike seasons 1 & 2, I had a different lens as I began watching season 3. For some reason, the parents seemed particularly broken. Perhaps it was my own baggage of feeling helpless and worn out, but it brought to my attention some topics that I needed to settle in my own parenting world. Much like I said when I first wrote about the pros/cons of watching this show, a fair disclaimer is necessary. This show is raw. It is tough to watch. But our teenagers are living in an all-access world with images, conversations, harsh realities and fierce subjects around every high school and social media corner. Perhaps it is time for us as parents to join them in these conversations::
- Secrets – There is a difference between privacy and secrecy. I’m not sure who gave me that line, but I have worked very hard to adopt it fully in our family. Secrecy can be manipulative. Secrecy can be dangerous. Throughout season 3, I just keep thinking these kids need trusted adults! Teen years are about developing independence, and some of that is privacy, but I wonder if we as parents need to regularly ask questions that allow our teens to seek input without violating their privacy?
- Addiction – If terms like Cloud Nine, Drank, Beans, Zombie Pills and Vikes are not on your user friendly parenting code list, it may be time to up your education. The world of drug and alcohol use in today’s teens is not what it was in 1993. Addiction is not something that only affects us in our middle age years. Addiction is impacting teens and young adults at record rates. And PLEASE don’t believe the lie, “not my kid.” It can happen to your kid and my kid and me.
- Trauma – In the after show for season 3 of 13 Reasons Why, the cast and creators taught me something new about trauma recovery. Rather than approaching trauma with “what is wrong with you?” the question we need to be asking is “what happened to you?” Such a simple shift in thought and information seeking presents a different view of care and open concern. I think that is a valuable tool for all parents!
- Sexual Assault– The statistics around rape and sexual assault in the US are beyond alarming. It is no longer acceptable for us as parents of teens to not talk about these topics. As a mom with one that leaves for college next fall, it is especially horrifying that campus sexual assault affects 1 in 5 women. While this was the hardest aspect of watching the show for me personally, nothing changes if we don’t talk about it.
- Adoption – Watching Justin’s character navigate adolescence brought the issues of abandonment and adoption to light in the teen years like never before. For many, adoption happens in the young years. If you are fortunate enough to be invited into relationships with teens who are in foster care or in the midst of active adoption, nurture that gift with extra care.
- Gun Violence – This is not a political conversation. Many of us have avoided speaking up about this topic because we like to remain out of the divided debates. This is no longer an option for the sake of our kids. Watching the teens in this show handle guns, hide guns, cover for friends with guns and use guns has once again pointed out that no matter our political stance, our family belief system or our own approach to fire arms, teens have access and will encounter guns in everyday situations. We must talk about this.
- Advocacy – We live in a world where many teens are empowered to speak up and out and for and against. I love this. In light of empowered advocacy, we need to be having conversations about encountering and interacting with those that oppose you. What happens when you are threatened for your beliefs? We long to free our kids to change the world and at the same time, we need to prepare them that many in the world prefer it the way it is.
- Immigration – Perhaps not the “normal” teen subject, I am so glad that the writers of 13 Reasons Why added this storyline. In communities and classrooms all over our country, teens are living in fear of their family and their own immigration status. I can’t imagine trying to study for a algebra test when my cousin or uncle or mom is in an ICE detention center. Rather than a political approach, I wonder if our teens just need a dose of awareness or a sounding board for processing the real struggles of their friend’s lives.
- Suicide – The issue that most assume dominates 13 Reasons Why is not necessarily the main focus of season 3. There were however some great reminders that the ones that have it together on the outside are often stuggling the most on the inside. If you are ever in doubt of the mental health of your teen, please, please, please err on the very side of protection.
- Shame – You cannot deal with these complex issues and not encounter the destructive force of shame. Tears rolled down my face as I watched multiple characters face the shame of their own missed expectations and worse yet, the shame of disappointing their parents. Our kids feel this weight in ways that can be devastating. May we do our own shame work so they can be free from our inherited generational shame.
While this is far from an exhaustive list of the topics covered in 13 Reasons Why, I think we have to intentionally enter these conversations as parents. I would love it if my only job was carpool driver and Starbucks payer. That is not what my girls need the most. They need a mom that is there – REALLY there. Because the dark and hard and scary will come and they need to know we are not afraid of going with them wherever their lives may lead.