Recently, Netflix released a new series called 13 Reasons Why. It may be that your teen has locked her/himself in their room over the last few weeks to binge watch this show. It is about a 17 year old girl, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide after leaving 13 tapes describing the 13 people with whom she had relationships with and that affected her so profoundly that collectively moved her to take her own life. This is not a show for the faint hearted. It deals with issues of friend betrayals, and exclusion and humiliation, sexual assault, and the sense that adults are not doing their job to watch out for and keep teens safe. I do think this show reflects the kinds of experiences and relationships that many teens have and that cause them to feel anxiety, depression and anger. If your teen won't watch it with you, I suggest you take the time to watch it yourself, especially if you know they have watched it. It is powerful, and sometimes a bit scary.
I had watched most of it and was extremely moved and disturbed. I walked into the college class I teach, and asked my freshman and sophomore college students if they had seen it yet. I was stunned at the number of kids who had literally spent 13 hours that weekend binge watching the entire show. It is based on a young adult novel that many of the students had read while in high school. We spent the class discussing the show and then I asked those interested, to write me a reaction paper on the series. The papers were sensitive and insightful and extremely moving. I thought maybe the show was a bit overwrought and not really what the typical high school experience is for most teens. Boy was I wrong! My students wrote in no uncertain terms how much they related to each and every episode of this show, and how much they learned not only about themselves, but what many of their fellow students must have been feeling. They felt regret for how they had treated and used social media to bully and humiliate teens they didn't like or were at odds with, mirroring an episode of the show, and they also felt regret for not stepping up and protecting those kids in their high school and middle schools that had been objects of ridicule and shame. They learned that what you see on the outside is not always what is going on in the inside of their fellow students. Instead, most teens offer up a persona of confidence and high self esteem when really they are insecure and hurting.
One of my students wrote this particularly moving passage about the series, and with her permission I share it with you here:
13 Reasons Why has been one of my favorite books since I was fourteen. However, I didn't realize how hard it would be for me to actually watch it. In a weird way I felt in sync with Hannah Baker. In my senior year of high school, my best friend and I were harassed by three other girls who were our best friends the year before. I had dealt with girl drama before, but this was way beyond that. My best friend has an eating disorder, so in November she left school to go to a mental treatment place. I had never felt so alone because she was my rock in school. The three girls kept going with their actions. They started rumors about me and turned some of the people that I thought were my good friends against me. I went to my guidance counselor often. I would ask him what I was supposed to do. His response to me was that because I had no proof of anything going on, I had go get over it. "After all, it's just girl drama," is what he would say to me. I felt like Hannah Baker at that moment. It was as if my cry for help was completely being ignored. If he didn't care about my well-being, why should I ? It was a day in March when my mom found me on my couch. I had fallen asleep, but when she tried to wake me up I couldn't move or speak, all I could do was cry. I could barely even breath at that point. That was my lowest day, and after that I went to therapy. I was lucky enough to have my mom care. The scene in 13 Reasons Why that was the most powerful for me was when Hannah's parents found her dead in the bathtub. When I would have days where I felt like I couldn't handle life anymore and I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, I always thought of my mom and dad and my brothers. I always put them first because I couldn't put them in the position to find me like Hannah's parents found her. I think that was the most important scene of all. Watching Hannah Baker's story was so personal for me because you really never know what someones going through. You also don't know what's true and what's a lie, so it's best to go straight to the person if you really want to know the truth.
Often times as parents we skirt around the tough stuff, worried that we might "plant" thoughts in our kids brains that were never there in the first place. Hard conversations about depression, and anxiety about drugs and alcohol, about bullying and shame. As long as they look OK , maybe they are OK. The talking is what normalizes it for teens. They hunger for normal! This is a tough show, scary and depressing, but then so is what a lot of what teens of today are dealing with but keep to themselves. If you watch without your teen, because they want to watch privately, that's OK. But let them know you have watched and are ready anywhere, anytime to talk it all out. Promise to listen and not judge, and that you are always there for loving support. Let them know that what they have to deal with on a daily basis is really hard and they don't have to deal with it alone.