13 Reasons Why

In the age of social media, the surge of a good story can circulate around the world and back — and leave you spinning. 

I’m a 40-something Gen Xer, the parent of two teens. I do my best to keep up, but I’m aware there are things trending all over the Internet that aren’t the soccer pictures of my fellow moms’ kids.

Netflix’s 13-episode series — 13 Reasons Why, based on the 2007 young-adult novel by Jay Asher — is essentially a series-long suicide note, left (in the form of cassette tapes) by a hurting teenage girl, detailing the 13 reasons/relationships that contributed to why she felt life wasn’t worth living anymore. 

I’d seen buzz about the series on my Facebook groups. And my kids’ school district sent a letter (among others in Minnesota and nationwide), cautioning against the mature content and the potential for the glamorization of suicide. 

Looking at reality

The topic of suicide, to any parent of teens, is horrific. We’re already stressed by all of the big subjects out there, and now we have to face this one, too? 

But, the thing is, we do. We just do. 

In 13 Reasons Why, you’re immersed in the world of high school — and the verbiage and communication is all teen. 

In fact, the entire show is built around the communication styles and perspectives of teens. 

And the parents and teachers in the show come in and out of scenes like interruptions. 

Watching the series helped me see how I, as a parent, have likely changed in the eyes of my children — now that they’ve reached adolescence. 

During early childhood, our kids chat with us and we laugh with them. 

Then things inevitably change during their transitional years: They don’t talk to us like they used to and they don’t seem to hear us either. 

Looking at my teens

I’ve had many conversations with both my reluctant 14-year-old daughter and more open 16-year-old son about this series, billed as an “uncensored” and “authentic” look at modern teen life, complete with obscene cyberbullying, brutal rape scenes, heavy use of the F word and a suicide scene some have called gratuitous. 

The rating is MA — mature audiences — for ages 17 and older. 

I’m not sure how you feel about that as parent. You’ll have to decide for yourselves. 

My husband and I, as big Game of Thrones fans, watch the hit show (which also carries an MA rating) with remote in hand. And we’re ready for a quick draw of the pause button if we hear the kids coming down the hall. 

So I felt I needed to view 13 Reasons Why — recently renewed for a second season — without my kids at my side. 

After watching it in its entirety, I know I wouldn’t want my middle-school daughter to have to carry the images of the long, graphic rape scenes in her head. 

And I really wouldn’t want my 16-year-old watching them either. But I know he could handle it, if he did. 

In my humble opinion, some of the visuals aren’t appropriate for middle schoolers. 

But the subject matter — that’s different. I talked to both of my kids about it, many times. 

God, I was affected by it. 

I asked them both: Is this your reality? Is this how high school feels? Why don’t the kids feel they can be honest with the adults around them?

My son said high school is different now than when we were teens. He says there is so much pressure with social media. Adults can’t understand what it’s like, because we didn’t live with it. 

Who can argue with that? We didn’t have anything like social media. 

But it hurts to feel like he thinks they have to be the ones to take it on, all on their own. 

Looking at myself

After watching fictional teens deal with very adult issues in very teenage ways in 13 Reasons Why, I was struck with my responsibility as a parent. 

As I mentioned earlier, the entry and exit of the parents in the kids’ lives in the series is tough to watch. 

Almost 100 percent of the time when asked, the teens say they’re OK. They shoo off the parents’ requests for meals together, their check-ins, their requests for open doors. 

I can see my teens. They come in and grab food and go up their rooms, perched like birds in treehouses — all alone with their iPads working, chatting and living their lives. 

It’s not that they don’t want to trust us anymore. It’s that the teenage mind can become a complex web of managing pressures, responsibilities and relationships. 

I think teens are afraid we’ll freak out if we really see they no longer have their innocence.  

They want to please us, to make us proud. But all of their inner dialogues leave them trying to work it out on their own — and make it look perfect for us. 

I need to be consistent in my verbiage. I need to get past the point where I see only the exterior of what my kids produce and notice the interior of how hard they’re trying.  

And the questions — I’ll keep asking them. I’ll interrupt that social-media universe they’re a part of and say: Are you OK? Do you need anything from me? 

I won’t stop telling them I love the grown-up version of them, just as much as the children they were. 

And I’ll hug them, tightly, until they give in and hug me back and know: I mean it.

Jennifer Wizbowski lives in Excelsior with her husband, daughter and son — both now teenagers.