By Kimberly Kennedy
The buzz (and parental concern) over the raw, realistic scenes in the Netflix TV series 13 Reasons Why, including rape and suicide, has died down for now. Teenagers, moving as fast as they tend to do, have mostly moved on.
Here’s the thing, though: There will soon be other controversial TV shows or movies coming down the pike that will leave us adults grappling with how best to help teens process the serious issues that come up in the show. (As of this writing, Netflix is about to release a new movie, To The Bone, about a young woman’s struggle with anorexia. As with the chatter around 13 Reasons Why, there is some concern about the show’s potential for unhealthy impact on teens.)
Controversial TV Shows
How to handle all this? We’re here to help. Here’s what to think about and what to discuss:
Use informed discretion when deciding whether your teen should view controversial TV shows at all. Some parents assume that, because kids know the difference between fiction and reality, they can handle intense material. “But knowing on an intellectual level doesn’t really matter,” says Claire Dean, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist with Mount St. Joseph University Wellness Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. “We’re all being impacted in ways we may not be able to put words to. [Intense material] is still really emotionally, psychologically triggering.”
It may cause sleep disturbance or intrusive thoughts or worries, especially if your child closely identifies with characters in ways which are not helpful, she adds. Know your child, and know what it’s in the show or movie.
If they see a potentially problematic show, make a point to talk about it. Kids do not have the coping skills nor life experience of adults to sort through certain issues and the complicated feelings they raise. Dean has found that, whether or not kids personally identify with the issues raised, talking through the issues with an adult helps teens process the information. Consider co-viewing episodes of particularly intense or controversial TV shows like 13 Reasons Why, have frequent conversations about hard issues, and incorporate these guidelines from Dr. Dean:
- Manage your reaction. Your goal is to remain calm, open, and supportive. “Your kids are testing out whether this material is okay to talk about or not,” says Dean. Reaffirm that you are a safe harbor for all topics, especially if they are hurting.
- Start with questions to engage them in a discussion—instead of a lecture. “This was difficult to watch; what do you think about it? What have your friends thought about it?”
- Reaffirm your family’s values. “Gauge your kids to see where they are in the conversation,” says Dean, then begin to let them know your stance on the issues raised in the show.
When evaluating a show, or thinking about what to discuss with your child or teenager, it’s not just about the big red flag issue—for example, the concerns about 13 Reasons Why encompass more than suicide. Here are five categories to keep an eye on and how to talk about them:
- Risky behaviors. Ask “What could the characters have done differently? What would you have done or said?” Give them the words to say: “I’m not cool with this.” Guide them to consider the possible consequences, like “Do you know what can happen if you chug alcohol?” (Alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.) Form a plan for your teen to let you know when they need out of a bad situation, like texting a code word. Stress that you can handle whatever comes, says Dean.
- Illegal activities. Your message is clear: “These things are illegal—period.” Let your teenager know that serious real-life consequences can follow law-breaking. Again, emphasize that you will gladly pick them up if they feel stuck in risky circumstances.
The struggles of onscreen teens can present an opportunity to check in on real life.
- Emotional abuse. When viewing onscreen nastiness, ask “Do you have friends having a hard time?” And “Have you been on the receiving end of comments or treatment like that?” If so, wrap your teenager in empathy and support. Ultimately, your message is: Never be a perpetrator. (Remind yourself what a healthy teenage social life looks like.
- Being a bystander. Meanness can abound in movies and shows that teens watch, not to mention in real life. Encourage your son or daughter to be an upstander rather than a bystander. Dean recommends practicing what to say or do. “Someone says Sarah is a slut; what are you going to say?” If your teen wouldn’t intervene, ask, “Why not? If it were you, what would you need?” Discover their barriers to doing the right thing. They don’t have to be confident, Dean says, just willing. “Bad things happen when people wait.”
- Mental health issues. The struggles of onscreen teens can present an opportunity to check in on real life. Ask “Do you and your friends talk about how you’re really doing, besides the grade you got on your paper?” suggests Dean. “Talk about the protective influence you can have as a friend, even in the smallest act toward someone who is suffering. Some kids have heard ‘If someone really wants to hurt themselves, there’s nothing I can do.’ That is absolutely a myth.” While your teenager should know that they are not responsible for fixing their friends’ problems, encourage your child to give a troubled teen options: “Let’s text this crisis line or talk to Mrs. So-and-so.”
With each conversation, we build trust along with a stronger relationship. Controversial TV shows and movies like 13 Reasons Why can present a series of teachable moments, opportunities to reinforce our values, and chances for our kids to work through what they would do in a challenging situation, and ultimately help them evolve toward becoming the person we know they can be.
Kimberly Kennedy is a freelance writer and the mom of two teenagers.
When the worry is suicidal thoughts or tendencies, tell your teen to share this info with anyone who may need it:
Crisis Text Line: Text “START” to 741741
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)