Depending on who you ask, Netflix’s hit YA drama, 13 Reasons Why, based on a novel by the same name written by Jay Asher, is either an edgy but accurate portrayal of the life of the modern teen or an irresponsible decision that sends very dangerous messages to a vulnerable demographic.

Though the series is targeted for high school students, depicting the social issues affecting students in grades 10 through 12 at fictional Liberty High, it has demonstrated appeal to middle school students as well. The show is graphic and leaves nothing to the imagination, including multiple instances of sexual assault, self-harm, physical bullying, drug use, and more. It looks real, it feels real, and it deals with issues that feel relatable—and that makes it enticing.

13 Reasons Why is not recommended for any teen struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, or a history of trauma. The potential triggers are plentiful. Last year, when the show first debuted, there was immediate and enormous pushback. This season, show writers attempted to respond to those criticisms by making improvements to the program.  The season begins with the show’s actors stepping out of character to encourage teens to seek support when needed. There is a warning that the show might not be right for all teens. Additionally, there is a link to resources (https://13reasonswhy.info/) that appears at the end of each episode.

While providing resources is a great step, it isn’t enough. Just because they’ve added preventative information and provided resources, it doesn’t mean we can assume that at-risk teens will utilize it.

And even if you are not a teen struggling with any of the issues addressed in the show, it is still potentially difficult to watch for all audiences. Teens might walk away from the show with a renewed sense of complete isolation and helplessness in a scary world. It can also trigger anxiety in parents. 13 Reasons Why shines a very bright spotlight on teen issues that strike fear into the hearts of parents. In watching the show, parents are forced to consider some very difficult teen issues like sexual assault, bullying and cyberbullying, drug and alcohol abuse, and gun violence—to name a few—in detail. The show highlights the idea that even the most well-intentioned and involved parents can sometimes have zero idea about the secrets their children may be hiding. It’s one thing to know these problems exist, it’s quite another to see them play out in a graphic nature right before your eyes.

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Whether or not you believe your teen watched Season 2, you should watch it. When parents are aware of the media their teens are digesting, they know how to spark conversations about difficult topics. Watch first, then consider the following conversation topics as a starting point to discuss with your teen or middle-schooler:

Do you think that Liberty High accurately depicts high school culture? Is it similar to your school?

While some teens will likely shake their heads and claim that nothing like that happens at their schools, many will relate to bits and pieces (or all) of the show. At the end of the day, 13 Reasons Why is a fictional representation of a high school. It’s a drama. That doesn’t mean, however, that teens aren’t subject to many of the same issues that the Liberty High characters face.

Ask your teen to describe the culture of his or her school. Are there certain groups of kids who experience special treatment? Is there a clear social hierarchy? Are friend groups “cliquey” or do they intermingle? In exploring school culture, you can help your teen consider what works and what doesn’t at his or her school and how they personally deal with any possible feelings of isolation, loneliness, or bullying.

Did the school do all it could to prevent bullying? Does your school have resources available to help that you would feel comfortable using?

One of the main plot lines of the second season of 13 Reasons Why is centered on the parents of Hannah Baker, the student who committed suicide in the previous season, facing the school administration in the court of law. Hannah’s parents are suing the school for ignoring bullying and neglecting to provide help for students who were expressing suicidal thoughts. While the school counselor takes a far more active role in improving school culture during this season, it’s clear that the kids don’t trust him to help. Your teen needs to know who to trust and how to get help at school.

Ask your teen where he or she can turn for help if the need arises. Are there different protocols for seeking academic help than for seeking emotional help? Is there a counselor, teacher, coach, or administrator who your teen feels comfortable approaching for help?

Many high schools have counselors on site to help with social-emotional issues, but some don’t. Depending on the size of the school, some counselors might carry very high caseloads. Every school is different, but every school should have a clear procedure in place for getting help when in need.

What do you know about consent?

 One of the school counselor’s missions this year is to be absolutely certain that the students of Liberty High, particularly the athletes, understand the concept of consent. This provides a perfect opportunity for you to talk with your teen about consent.

Emphasize that for any sexual activity to happen, both people need to consent, or say yes, willingly and freely, each time a situation occurs. There is a difference between saying yes and being coerced into saying yes, as we see in one scene between a boyfriend and girlfriend on the show. It’s important for teens to understand that anything other than yes means no, that both parties have the right to change their minds at any time, and that just because someone has done something with someone before does not mean they are consenting to do it again.

Be sure that your teen understands that if someone doesn’t say “yes”, then any coercion to engage in sexual activity (even unwanted kissing) is assault. Alcohol is the most used date rape drug and both girls and boys need to be aware that if someone has been drinking, they are not always in a place where they can consent to sexual activity. There is a lot of sexual activity clouded in drinking and drugs in 13 Reasons Why. Talk to your teen about how alcohol and drug use can affect decision making. Sober consent is legal consent.

In addition to the sexual assault flashbacks from Season 1, Season 2 includes a very graphic sexual assault of a male student by three male peers. The assault is committed as an act of revenge and the victim of the assault, unfortunately, feels too much shame to confide in anyone, even his lovingly attentive parents. Speak to your child to make sure they know that assault is never the fault of the victim and that no one should have to close themselves off from others due to shame. This is an important message for teens, who may not experience these situations directly, but can struggle to discuss these instances with friends who are in situations in which they need a confidant.

Do you know what “victim blaming” is? Have you ever witnessed any “slut-shaming”?

Both in the case of sexual assault and in the case of bullying, the students of Liberty High (and, in some cases, the adults in the community) engage in victim blaming. They find reasons to defend the behavior of their peers instead of fully listening to anyone who is claiming to have been hurt by those peers.

Ask your teen if he or she has ever seen or heard about this kind of behavior at school. How have they handled the situation? What can your teen do if victim blaming does occur?

What’s a healthy relationship?

Teens have questions about love, romance, and healthy, consenting relationships, but they don’t always know where to turn for advice and it can be embarrassing to talk about it with an adult. So consider your tone and be aware of how far you are pushing your child in the discussion, you don’t want to make them feel embarrassed and then have them fail to approach you in the future.

Talk about examples of healthy relationships. Discuss the concept of healthy conflict and what couples can do to work through heated emotions. Be sure to convey that you are there to answer questions without judgment.

How do you feel about substance use and abuse?

 Teens and drinking are certainly not a new concept, but 13 Reasons Why depicts a group of kids who are unsupervised most of the time and free to abuse drugs and alcohol. Ask your teen about substance use in his or her school. Create a safety plan to get out of uncomfortable situations. Discuss the risks of substance use—both short and long term. Like all conversations with teens, avoid judgment and communicate support.

Discuss gun violence.

Spoiler alert: Season 2 culminates with a thwarted school shooting and use of guns to feel powerful and release tension—another theme throughout the season.

Teens are growing up in a time where school shootings are a very real threat. Ask your teen if he or she feels safe at school. Talk about school safety plans and what to do if your teen is on campus during a shooting. You can’t erase the threat, but you can help your teen process his or her feelings about it.

How can we cope with anger?

The teens of Liberty High face a wide range of emotions, but anger is a common theme. While they each deal with their emotions in their own ways, it’s clear that these kids do not have adaptive coping skills.

Ask your teen about feelings of anger. What does he or she do with those feelings? What are some healthy ways to release and process feelings of anger?

Talk about mental health.

The students of Liberty High are cautioned against talking about suicide or Hannah Baker in school during Season 2. This sends a dangerous message that difficult feelings should be dealt with by yourself and in silence, a message that could not be further from the truth.

Teens need to understand that many young people struggle with mental health disorders and they should be encouraged to talk about what they experience. Whether or not your teen struggles with a mental health disorder, talk about the stigma of mental health and how teens can help one another when they face adversity.

Have you ever witnessed, experienced, or committed bullying or cyberbullying? How did it feel?

One thing the show clearly expresses is that teens don’t always feel comfortable coming forward. They fear retribution. The worry that they will be blamed. They feel helpless. These are, indeed, some reasons that teens don’t seek help with bullying and cyberbullying.

Ask your teen if he or she has ever seen or experienced any kind of bullying at school. Ask what happens most often (e.g. rumors, nicknames with cruel or embarrassing connotations, social media cyberbullying) and how kids respond. Talk about how to be an upstander—someone who works to make situations right—and what to do if bullying happens to your teen.

Emphasize that suicide is permanent.

One error that plays out in both seasons of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah Baker continues to live on and tell her story. In Season 1, Hannah leaves 13 tapes behind to explain the circumstances leading up to her death. In this way, her voice is heard by her classmates after her death. In Season 2, Hannah haunts Clay and interacts with him throughout the season, driving his decisions and continuing to explain herself. While it is debated whether her actions—the effect that she has after her death through the tapes and the suicide itself—are to be considered vengeful, the truth remains that the idea that the character gets what she wants through suicide is extremely harmful, especially to teenagers that are just beginning to process intense emotions.

Talk about suicide with your teen. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Review ways to seek help.

Discuss grief. Share your experiences with it.

Lurking beneath the surface of the plotlines, buried beneath sexual assaults and a lengthy court case, is a community in mourning. While the kids of Liberty High express heated emotions throughout the season, it isn’t until the funeral at the very end that we begin to understand their process of grieving and the fact that sadness and mourning, or an inability to mourn, has been outlining all of their actions and emotions.

We all grieve in different ways. Talk to your teens about loss, saying goodbye, processing the finality of death, and learning to live without a loved one.

Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why is overwhelming, graphic, and intense, but it can spark important conversations with your teen. Use it as a springboard to connect with your teen and tackle complicated topics that your teen might not know how to process.

Read PsyCom’s article about 13 Reasons Why, Season 1 here. 

Last Updated: Jun 8, 2018