As an educator working with teens, I couldn't avoid watching "13 Reasons Why" on Netflix. And, despite the enormous amount of backlash in the psychology community, I found one aspect of the portrayal of teen life to be highly accurate and crucial to understand: There are three conversations happening among teens and the adults in their lives, and the disconnect among them is why adolescents often don't get support when they need it most.

The Tension

In "13 Reasons Why", the young narrator unravels a series of events that led to her decision to commit suicide. It's a story of sexual assault, bullying, and substance abuse. But, it's also a story about the relationships among the people in her life -- peers, parents, and educators. The structure of the story (we know the outcome from the very first scene) leads the viewer to constantly ask how the outcome might have been different if each scene had unfolded differently. 

The most common tension for me as a viewer was in the pregnant pauses when a character didn't communicate what they were thinking and feeling to another character. These scenes were constant throughout the show, and they fell into three patterns that we have seen in our work at Thinking Beyond Borders with groups of 17-19 year olds, and I have seen in other educational spaces over the years. 

The first pattern was how teens communicated with their peers. While they talked openly with one another about concerns and serious events in their lives (sexual assault, substance abuse, and suicide in the case of 13 Reasons), their conversations were also stunted by their desire to seem cool. They expressed a collective desire to prove their maturity by taking on serious issues without involving the adults in their lives. They protected themselves and their peers from the consequences of their actions, with a real concern that the immediate consequences (suspension from school, for example) were more important than long term consequences (like permanent physical harm). Teens in both the series and real life want to reach out to adults for guidance and support when things get serious, but they fear the judgment and consequences that may result. From what we know about the developmental stage of adolescence, these tendencies are normal, even if they are problematic.

The second pattern is the communication among adults, most often parents and educators. They tend to speak openly with spouses or coworkers. But, their conversations often don't incorporate the community of adults that includes all of the venues of the student's life (i.e. family, school, community). In both the show and life, there is a wide range of approaches to serving as a parent or mentor, but it's far too common for adults to hesitate to reach out to other adults for fear of invading the privacy and independence of their teens. Some adults try to play an authoritative role. Others attempt to offer support when it's asked for. Others seem to choose blissful ignorance or naïveté, assuming that everything is fine and their teen is unchallenged in life until they hear otherwise. 

The third pattern is the communication between teens and the adults in their lives. This is perhaps the most heart-wrenching to witness and experience. Teens tend to hold tightly to their independence, and assume protecting their privacy and their peers to be key to that task. Adults try to grapple with the various tensions inherent in wanting to be supportive while also respecting independence. Both teens and adults recognize the potential consequences of not handling their intra-communication well -- a longterm loss of trust in their relationship.

Why do these patterns matter? Because they prevent teens from getting the support they need when grappling with everything they face in their lives -- from the daily challenges of adolescence to immediate issues pertaining to health and safety. And, as is well illustrated in 13 Reasons Why, the more serious the issues become (repeated acts of sexual assault), the more these patterns are aggravated, further preventing meaningful communication.

Addressing the Challenge

None of these patterns are set in stone. There are a number of things teens, parents, and educators can do to counter these patterns and ensure teens get the support they need:

  1. Establish Meaningful Mentorship: Every teen needs support in tackling the challenges of becoming an adult. Sex, peer relationships, love, and substances are a real and dynamic part of every teen's day in some form or another. While they talk about these topics with their peers, the reality is that their peers aren't any better equipped to deal with these topics than they are. Offering regular adult mentorship from someone who is equipped to listen and provide support is crucial for teens. This could be a therapist, teacher, coach, guidance counselor, or relative. But, it's crucial that the teen be allowed to confide in their mentor without the fear of consequences (mandated reporting be an important exception).
  2. Provide Training for Adulthood: There is little mystery about what the most common challenges are that teens face in their lives. Adults can offer teens training and knowledge that can help inform the ways they make decisions for themselves and communicate with their peers. In our work with gap year students, we've found that talking openly about substance use, abuse, and addiction has been crucial in preparing teens to make more informed choices for themselves and their peers. By talking to teens about sex, substances, and relationships in dynamic, realistic ways, adults can help teens unpack the tension they feel around these issues and make more informed decisions.
  3. Acknowledge the Tension: Teens, parents, and educators should take the courageous step of acknowledging the tension in their relationships. Teens can make clear to adults in their lives what information they do and don't want to share, while also letting adults know what questions they have and information they need. Adults can acknowledge the limits of their understanding about the lives of their teens and highlight the challenges they faced in adolescence. Perhaps most importantly, parents can acknowledge to their teens that they know they probably will face boundaries to communication in their relationship, and they can give explicit permission and encouragement for their teen to pursue adult mentorship elsewhere. As an educator, I've repeatedly found teens struggling with not wanting to tell their parents everything about their lives, but feeling they are betraying their parents by talking to another adult. 
  4. Cross Boundaries: Adults can and should reach out to the other adults in the lives of their teens. Parents, educators, and mentors can support one another by ensuring key information and observations are shared. Adults rarely have the full picture of what is happening in a teen's life. Piecing together the bigger picture is much easier when many perspectives are included. In our programs at TBB, we make explicit to students that information shared by students to one Program Leader will be shared with all Program Leaders. We share that this helps us better understand everyone's needs.

These steps aren't always easy, and they sometimes come with consequences. At times it takes work and courage to take these risks. But, not taking them comes with all its own risks. Every teen needs support. To get it to them, we need to tackle these common communication patterns.

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