Since last year, I have been watching more Netflix Original series like Atypical and anything Marvel-related to help me pass time, often when I am multitasking late in the evening. So when the trailer for 13 Reasons Why season 2 aired, I immediately had a flashback.
It was only last year that I discovered the unfettered content my three pre-teen and teenage daughters were watching without my knowledge. It was a parenting moment I don’t wish to repeat.
Which is why I am grateful that numerous professional associations, like the National Association of School Psychologists, are reaching out to Netflix executives, parents and educators to be more proactive about viewer discretion.
Like many kids out there, my daughters are fairly happy, healthy and well-adjusted. The number of adverse childhood experiences they have had is probably less than some of the children and families I work with as a school psychologist. Many vulnerable young people are experiencing toxic levels of stress and have few strategies for developing resilience. The barrage of information marketed to them can make it challenging for them to manage live streaming or binge watching difficult content. Honestly this can be true at some level for all kids, including mine.
Which is why I asked my daughters to consider watching the series with me! Or better yet, not watch it at all, heeding advice from NASP and other mental health organizations. While Netflix is offering parental control through their website, as a father I try often to help them develop skills that will serve them well into their adulthood. And one of the more powerful protective factors is open and honest (or as frank as they can be with their dad) conversations. Communication about the little things in their life as well as the milestones is what allows me greater access to their developing minds.
Conversations with kids is the best advice I can offer to other families who worry about their children. I recently heard someone say, “less bitching and more pitching.” These “talks” or “pitches” or, better still, “listening sessions” with your teens will help you understand how they process information. Watching 13 Reasons Why season 2 and its far too raw portrayal of high school life will help me know if they are living this story line, have friends who are in trouble, or are absorbing misinformation.
It’s tough being a parent nowadays! It takes a huge commitment to be in your children’s lives. There are few times in the journey that we can be prepared in advance for difficult moments, but I feel strongly that this may be one of those times. Learning from the past, I can start a conversation before this show becomes a problem. I can find trustworthy resources to help me listen to my children. Of course my desire to watch it with them may totally turn them off the series, and I will take that as a win in itself!?
In watching difficult content together, here are some of the things I would like to say:
- “If you had a problem, who are three people you would turn to for help?”
- “Are any of your friends at risk?”
- “If you saw something, would you say something?”
- “Is tattling is different than telling when there is a real problem?”
- “Did I mention I love you and want to spend more time with you?”
So I took my own advice… My twin daughters (in 8th grade) did appreciate the offer but had more interest in Fortnite than Netflix. My 16 year old, however, agreed to watch with me.
I think I set the stage for a positive experience by not saying too much in the beginning, having lots of snacks and ample time to watch a few episodes in a row. As themes of drug abuse, rape, sexual consent, suicide, guns, physical violence and bullying behavior arose, I was delicate in correcting the message I thought the show was portraying. I found myself asking simple questions and trying to adopt a very casual (non-reactive) approach. At times, she responded with “That would never happen in real life!” or “This is so dramatic!” They were the statements I was hoping to hear — ones that reassured me she was thinking about this as a show that covers topics to start a conversation, not to promote these actions. Scenes at times were too graphic for either of us. And afterwards, I asked her if she understood why “the big hype” with mental health professionals talking about this series.
“Adolescents are still trying to find their place in the world,” she said, “and by watching these kinds of shows they can be influenced either negatively or positively.” I was so happy to hear that!
So I pressed my luck and asked what advice she would give to parents. She added, “Definitely emphasize how parents should be attentive in their child’s life, even if the child keeps pushing back, because knowing they’re there for you, even if they can be annoying, is most important for struggling teens.” Well said, Emily!
The release of 13 Reasons Why season 2 is a reminder of the importance of knowing what your children are watching or doing with social media. If they stay in their room, are constantly on their laptops and phones, and rush through dinner, then you will have to get creative in finding ways to connect with them. My answer is go up to their room, often, to ask silly yet probing questions, or to take an interest in what they are doing on their phones and in their lives, set rules about friending them on social media, and invite them to help cook dinner even if they say no to you a lot.
It’s not always the words you use but your actions that they will remember. And I have little choice but to use this series as a learning opportunity.
For more on talking to kids about 13 Reasons Why, check out this toolkit from the organization SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education).