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Parenting Lesson from 13 Reasons Why: Invite Vulnerability in Your Kids

By Suzanne Garfinkle, MD

Netflix’s notorious 13 Reasons Why is intended to scare parents. Why do seemingly normal kids conceal their suicidal thoughts from those who can help them most? And what parenting decisions can we make that might promote more openness? Netflix announced a third season will be coming out this year; let’s look back at some of the things we can learn from previous seasons of 13 Reasons Why to prepare ourselves for season three.

Disappointments and Mistakes

Hannah was pretty, thoughtful, and interesting to her peers. The new girl in town, she achieved a fair amount of social success. She was not the most severely bullied, wasn't an outcast, and she came from an ordinary, intact, loving family. And terrifyingly, she did not show glaring signs of suicidal intent to her parents or peers.

The narrative of her demise weaves together 13 of Hannah’s disappointing relationships. Friends uplift and then drop her, boys pursue and then “slut shame” her, and she feels progressively alone.

In my practice as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I work with many sensitive, complex teenagers like Hannah, and I can tell you that most high school girls could describe 13 similar disappointments. Some parents are aware of them, and some are not.

Hannah seeks help from the guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, and even alludes to feeling suicidal. Rather than helping her open communication, he makes a series of mistakes that shut it down.

Mr. Porter’s mistakes are a central problem in both seasons of 13 Reasons Why. If he had followed the standard protocol as a mental health professional, he would have called her parents. He would not have let her leave his office with no plan for follow-up. Moreover, he fails at rule number one of taking care of teens, which is making them feel comfortable talking to you.

If he had been a more experienced or more skilled clinician, he would have made her feel safer in many ways: establishing confidentiality, asking more open-ended questions, pulling for her to express more rather than rushing in prematurely with advice. He would have noticed her getting agitated during their meeting and taken a more flexible approach.

We do know that most people who commit suicide try to reach out for help in the days before their death. Eight out of 10 people who commit suicide give some sign of their intentions, and those who talk about and explore suicide are 30 times more likely than average to kill themselves.

The Parents of 13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why functions as a parenting mystery revolving around the question: Was anything wrong with The Bakers? Why was Hannah so alone?  Let’s take a closer look at some of the parents on the show, and see how we can do better by our kids.

1. Hannah Baker’s parents are well-meaning, kind, and not overtly neglectful. They are married. They have some financial problems. They treat her well, without much conflict. We see them loving their daughter and being kind to her. Olivia, her mother, shows a playful side when gently teasing Hannah about a boy. Hannah seems touched when her mom gives her a box of chocolates for Valentine’s day.

So if they had a basically good relationship, why didn’t they know what was going on inside their daughter?  Why was Hannah so secretive?

First, they seem to be missing a lot of the facts of her life. After her death, they discover who Hannah’s friends were, but knew almost nothing about them while she was alive.

They had their own preoccupations, as all parents do. Their business was failing, and there was stress in the marriage. Eventually, we learn Hannah catches her father having an affair, and observes her mother weeping. This is a critical moment: her mother lies and says they had “a little argument,” and brushes her tears away. Olivia is trying too hard to protect Hannah, and this is one of the fatal flaws in their relationship.

By concealing the truth—not only the truth of the affair but the truth about her own sadness and anger—she is sending the message to Hannah that emotions are dangerous and need to be hidden. Hannah responds in kind: rather than engaging in a real way with her mother, she buys her flowers “just for being a great mom.” It’s a way of acknowledging something is wrong that cannot be discussed. It’s not a bad thing to do (I can think of worse things teenagers do), but we see Hannah and Olivia protecting each other rather than being open.

In her session with Mr. Porter, she reveals about her parents: “I care about them, but I’m not who they need me to be,” which she defines as “not a problem.” Unfortunately, Mr. Porter’s cell phone vibrates, and we never get to hear her elaborate. But one thing is clear: their avoidance of negative emotion has left Hannah alone to magnify her issues rather than view them in perspective, to feel hopeless rather than averagely struggling, and to see herself as bad and “a problem,” rather than merely aggrieved and unhappy like teens at Liberty High Schools everywhere.

2. Zach Dempsey’s mother is convinced her son is perfect. The Zach we know is handsome, athletic, bright, and kind. But high school is complicated, and people are complicated, and it turns out Zach has done some bad things. He begs her to listen, but she refuses. Furthermore, his father passed away the year before, and when he confesses to her that he is suffering, his mother insists he is “fine.”

Her focus on appearances reaches a boiling point when she pressures Zach to remain loyal to Bryce Walker once Bryce has been confirmed as a rapist because the Walkers are socially powerful. “What would people think?” she asks. What matters to Mrs. Dempsey is her son’s image, both in the eyes of others and her own. She is an extreme example of a parent who cannot handle the truth about her child and denies his feelings. In assuming (and insisting on) only the best in him, she makes him feel unseen, alienated, and ashamed. In psychotherapy, we call this an “invalidating” home environment. In a much more extreme way than Hannah, Zach is being taught that feelings are shameful and dangerous.

3. In 13 Reasons Why season one, Alex Standall’s father, a stern town sheriff, appears to be totally disconnected from his son, although he shows some effort to be a good parent. He asks Alex nothing about his life but makes a point of saying “I’m proud of you” before dismissing Alex from their passing conversation. This scene was striking because he does appear to be trying. The viewer can imagine the wheels turning in Mr. Standall’s head: “Remember to tell your son you are proud of him,” as if he is attempting to do better than the even more authoritarian father he may have had, who failed to utter these words. But that is not enough, as Alex, also desperately alone, makes an (unsuccessful) suicide attempt following Hannah’s death.

In season two, Mr. Standall rises to the occasion differently, when he involves himself in the criminal pursuit of Bryce Walker. One is heartened in this show when parents actively participate in their children’s communities. It makes a difference in their relationships and the mental health of the children.

4. Of all the parents on 13 Reasons Why, Clay Jensen’s are the most drawn out. His mother, an earnest but savvy lawyer, who at first becomes entangled in Hannah’s case, is the best example of a parent who wants to balance giving her teenager space with a persistent effort to connect. She and his father are shown many times tentatively knocking on his door. They notice their son struggling and actively strive to know why.

They try a number of strategies to open the conversation, including switching the poorly-attended family dinner to family breakfast, asking him direct questions, and even putting medication he used to take on the table next to his meal. For most of the show, Clay completely shuts them out, despite their best efforts, but by the end of the second season, the walls slowly come down.

Through her persistence, Mrs. Jensen gleans that it would be better for Clay to recuse herself from the trial. One afternoon Clay comes home to find his father joyfully preparing a meal with Clay’s unorthodox girlfriend. Finally, Clay’s mother makes the grand heroic gesture of legally supporting and ultimately adopting Clay’s friend Justin Foley—nearly orphaned, a heroin addict, but someone who proves critical to the trial and someone who becomes very important to Clay. Of course, they could have tried a bit harder to get Clay, who spirals downhill visibly, into therapy. (Strangely, only one of the adults on the show discusses therapy with his children.)

No surprise, then, that it is Clay and his father whose conversation ventures closest to the central issue of secrecy between parents and children:

Mr. Jensen: Why is it that kids don’t tell their parents like anything, ever? Is it shame? Or fear? I mean, it can’t be fear of punishment because no one’s punished for anything anymore. Are you afraid we won’t understand?

Clay: “More like afraid you’d understand too well.”

Mr. Jensen: “So you’re protecting your secrets.”

Clay: “Or, we’re protecting you.”

In other words, kids hide things from their parents because they love them, not because they don’t. But the secrecy is still problematic—tragically so—and fear of disappointing parents (as Hannah puts it, being “a problem”) does seem to be chief among the culprits.

My Advice to Parents

The fascinating thing about teenagers is that despite all of their burgeoning adult faculties, a very important part of the brain is far from developed: the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain deals with planning, personality development, and decision making (to name a few) and continues to prune until kids are in their mid to late 20’s. That means parents of adolescents have a lot of power to help shape the kind of people they will be. Don’t worry if they push you away sometimes, or a lot of the time. What you say and do matters. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

Be curious

Inhabiting another person’s mind can be hard. It’s actually impossible. But sometimes we give up too soon and don’t go as far as we can, perhaps because it’s scary for us to realize how little we do know.

Facts help. You can ask yourself basic questions: Do I know where my kids are during the day, at night? Even just knowing the calendar. Keep a calendar of their life! What classes does he have on Tuesdays? When are his tests? When are the important social events? With whom are they spending their time? How do they feel about those people? Adults, kids? (Have each of the important people over so you can meet them!) What do they like the most about their days? The least?

Activities help. Kids loosen up, and you can learn things about them by doing things together. There are two kinds of activities: those you direct, and those they direct. You might take the lead on preparing a meal, repairing a lamp, or taking care of a pet together. Of course, they might decline in favor of sitting on the couch glued to Instagram, but then again they might surprise you and take you up on it. And they might say no ten times and then yes. And they might never want to do it, but feel cared for that you wanted to and kept asking.

If these parent-directed activities fail to engage them, you might turn to a kid-directed activity. What do they like to do? It is noteworthy on 13 Reasons Why that parents can recover from an embarrassing lack of knowledge! When Tyler Down’s father tries awkwardly to play video games with his son, he refers to them as “vids” which of course engenders his son’s contempt. But what if he went back another time and didn’t call them that? What if he read an article about the game and became knowledgeable? Mr. Down eventually takes his son, who is creepily obsessed with guns, shooting. He follows Tyler’s interest, which gives his son expertise, friendship, and a stronger connection to his father.

It’s Not (Only) About You

You know how much you love them, and you know how terrific they are, but they may not see themselves the same way. Find out what they do think of themselves, and why. It can, of course, enhance a teen’s self-esteem to hear your positive opinions about them. However, make sure to be very specific in your praise. Boil things down to keywords. For example: “Like that time you made dinner for everyone—that showed real initiative.” Or, “One of the things I love most about you is how you always know how to make me laugh when I’m stressed.” They will internalize your comments even if they shrug them off in the moment.

Model Vulnerability

The way to get kids comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities is to give them the confidence that you won’t judge them, and what better way to establish this than to show that you too are imperfect. One dinner table game I recommend to families is “highs and lows,” where everyone has to describe the best—and worst—moments of their day. Parents included. Kids will pay attention to how you think about, and solve, your own problems, and especially to how you handle issues with no easy solution.

13 Reasons Why dramatizes the avoidance and secrecy that characterizes some parent-teen relationships. However, not all families have this problem to the same degree. Some adolescents are quite close with their parents, talk to them, cry to them, tell them about their heartbreaks and humiliations and fears. When communication problems arise and doors appear eternally shut, it is possible to work toward more openness with your teen. But lastly, don’t expect that you can fix everything. Our kids can only learn to embrace imperfection if we can handle it ourselves.


About the Author

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Dr. Suzanne Garfinkle, MD, MsC is a Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist in Private Practice in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, and is the Founding Director of the Academy for Medicine and the Humanities at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. A life-long New Yorker, she received a B.A. in English from Amherst College, an MSc in Theoretical Psychoanalysis from University College London, and an M.D. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, via the Humanities and Medicine early acceptance program. She has taught in the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia and has had fellowships with the Folger Shakespeare Library, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Association for Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training. She has published articles in the Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, American Surgeon, the Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, Jane Magazine, and goop.com, and has published a book chapter on child development in Mount Sinai Expert Guides. Dr. Garfinkle enjoys lecturing and has addressed many academic, professional, and general audiences on parenting and the humanities,  including feeding children, food and literature, and sibling rivalry.

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