3 Ways to Use "13 Reasons Why" to Talk to Your Kids

If you have been on social media at all in the last month, chances are you have come across an article about the Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why.” The conversations run the gamut of rave reviews to scary warning labels.  Despite the plethora of articles already written, after watching the series myself, I felt the urgency to continue the dialogue regarding this highly controversial show. I’m not going to take the position that the show is either positive or negative, rather I am writing to represent the gray and offer the possibility that parents and adults can use this series as a tool for working with teens.

In full transparency, I’m not a parent. I haven’t had to talk to my kids about suicide, sex, drugs, bullying, or rape- and I’m most certainly not looking forward to the day that I do. However, I do hold a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and specialize in working with adolescent girls. Part of my success in working with this population is that it wasn’t that long ago that I was a teenager myself dealing with many of the issues portrayed in the show.

I remember when I would have a bad day at school and it would quite honestly feel like my world was over. I couldn’t imagine showing my face on campus and there were times when I would stay home because of an incident that happened with my friends. During these awkward and uncomfortable years, my parents were open and curious to hear about the world that I was living in, and typically I was able to share the real truth of what was happening. I know that my situation and my parents (shout out to mom and dad!) were not the norm. A majority of my friends had very stilted talks with their parents.

 “How was school?”      


“Anything interesting happen?”     


 And just like that, conversations ended. What is striking to me is that I think both parties were craving more interaction and connection, but they didn’t know how to make it happen.  And this is where “13 Reasons Why,” comes in and how you as parents, or adults, in a teen’s life can use this show to bridge the communication gap.

 1.     Externalization   

In psychology, there is a term called externalization. It is the basis for play therapy and is used primarily with younger clients because it allows a person to talk about, and process, what has happened to someone else- which, as you can imagine, is far less threatening. Hannah, Clay, Justin, Bryce and all of the other characters in the show provide an opportunity for externalization. Parents and teens can talk through high school experiences without the teens feeling like they are sharing too much about their own lives.

 2. Open-Ended Questions

This is a skill that therapists are trained to use when working with clients and I am not going to lie- it isn’t easy. However, it is the difference between getting one or two word responses to getting a full sentence- and for the parents out there- you know how much of a win that is when it happens!

This show lends itself as the perfect platform for asking your son or daughter questions that will provide you insight into their world without them feeling like they are being interrogated. Read through these two examples and imagine the differences.

 “Did you like that show 13 Reasons Why?”

 “Tell me about your reaction when Hannah realized a picture had been sent around campus.”

 The second prompt provides more room for dialogue and this series is doing you a favor. It is bringing up difficult topics that you can piggyback on. You can take the temperature of your kid’s attitude about these issues through their body language and tone of voice and by you showing curiosity, you are more likely to create the space, that therapists like myself, are able to do.

 3. Vulnerability 

If you are unfamiliar with the issues covered in the 13 episodes, it ranges from cyber-bullying, peer pressure, sexual assault, drug and alcohol use, and the biggest issue- teen suicide. These topics are prevalent in all campuses, both middle school and high school, and sadly, I am hearing about it regularly with the young girls I work with. After the show first aired, I noticed that most of these young girls I work with were coming in wanting to talk about the show. This show struck a chord so deep with both teens and parents because it is so accurately reflective of the current culture our adolescents live in.

 But why me? Why don’t they talk to their parents?

 The nature of therapy is often that we share more with our therapists than we do loved ones in our lives. However, given the heaviness of the issues brought up with this show, and the targeted younger demographic, I was concerned about the gap I saw between my clients and their parents.  I noticed that my clients were feeling comfortable talking to me about what happened to Hannah and Jessica (I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t watched) and their reactions to the other characters on the show, but they weren’t having the same conversations with their parents.

 The reason for this comes down to two words: safe space. The core of my job as a therapist is to provide that for those that walk into my room. The great news is, parents can do the same thing. You don’t need to have a Masters degree, a pretty office with a view, or magic powers to make it safe for your teen to talk.

 All you need is genuine curiosity and openness.

 And let’s get real for a minute, your kids, especially your teenagers, know when you’re faking it. So be YOU. Being the perfect parent, trying to say the exact right thing will get you nowhere. If you can acknowledge and share your imperfections with your kids, if you can empathize with what they’re going through, they will open up.

 Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers- that is okay. You can empathize with the brutality that comes with your teenage years and agree with them when they say,

 “You don’t get what it’s like to be a teenager today.”

 Because you don’t. Issues that your kids are dealing with weren’t even daydreams when you were growing up. Acknowledge that difference with your kids and let them teach you what it’s like to be them.

This show is intense. These topics are difficult to discuss. The series does have scenes that can be triggering and cause reactions to viewers. AND if used correctly, this show can strike up conversations in a less threatening way and provide parents and children with an opportunity to get to know each other on a different level.

So, if you haven’t watched this show yet, please watch it. Season two is happening and I guarantee that if your child hasn’t watched it yet, they’ll watch it by the time the second season airs. Watch the show and imagine yourself in those situations-how would you handle them? What would you do differently or the same? Open-ended questions are tangible tools to get you and your kid talking about this show and in turn, learning more about one another.

 Kids spend a majority of their time in school and their peers and reputation is all encompassing at this time in their life. Teens often roll their eyes at their parents and asked to be dropped off blocks before their friend’s house, but the truth is, they need you.

Use the media as a platform to open up the conversation. Model for your kids that you are not afraid of the scary topics. Show them that they are entitled to their own opinions and experiences. Teach them that they can stand up for themselves and others. And most importantly, let them know that you have their back.