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.
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.
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:
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.