The Netflix television series “13 Reasons Why” is all over the news right now. Critics are focusing on the potential harms of its graphic depiction of suicide. Will youth who are already vulnerable be pushed over the edge by this compelling series, or will it reveal how truly messy and painful suicide is, thus inspiring vulnerable youth to seek help instead of trying to end their lives?
As a psychotherapist and educator who has worked with youth for decades, I see a vital point that is glaringly absent from this conversation; that teenagers are not emotionally or mentally ready to be exposed to material that floods their brains with vicarious emotional trauma without guidance from adults who are well-prepared to discuss such trauma. Young people need safe, adult-supported spaces in which to explore and express their feelings because their lives are filled with brutal, graphic, and pornographic images. It has never been more important for adults to be ready and available for these conversations.
Many teens travel daily in realms of digitally conveyed trauma, often in graphic living color, via the Internet and social media. As much as we adults might wish for it to be different, this hijacking of children’s reptilian brains through extreme sounds, images, and stories is pervasive and unstoppable. Some of this material comes from real life, and some of it – like the TV series young people binge-watch or the movies they see – is made-up. Both have impact on the immature brains of children and teenagers, whose emotional brains are still developing and less controlled by the higher brain centers in comparison with adults over the age of 25. Most do this exploration without any adult guiding them through their intense emotional responses -- often, because they are doing so in intentional secrecy, fearing that the adults in their lives would respond with anger or fear if confronted with this content or the young person’s feelings around it.
Instead of spending time debating whether they should see such things, it is more realistic to recognize that this ship sailed a long time ago. This is the new normal, and parents of teens can only try to proactively prepare themselves for the conversations and to be sensitive to the right times to initiate those conversations.
5 REASONS WHY adults and youth need social and emotional intelligence to deal with potentially traumatizing media:
1. One of the most important tasks of brain development for teens is to develop strong bonds with peers, and how to distinguish healthy from unhealthy relationship choices.
Adults need to be an anchor for this process and spend undistracted time to explore teen questions and feelings in relation to the bonds they are creating and the choices they are making.
2. Teens are drawn to novelty and extreme experiences; this is developmentally appropriate for them. They need you to accept this, and to inform yourself and act as an authority about how to discern the dangerous from the creatively novel and the self-destructive from the inspirational.
Build your capacity to tolerate your teen’s quest for the new, and know how to counsel them and direct them towards generative outlets for their natural tendencies to chase novelty and deeply transformative experiences. Join them in activities and ideas that direct their passion for breakthroughs and innovation.
3. Teens are going through rapid hormonal changes and are subject to great vacillation in moods and feelings. They need to learn how to self-soothe, manage emotions, have empathy for others, and ask for help when they need it. The biggest challenge here, for many adults, is to develop the necessary skills to manage their own emotional responses while hearing about their child’s experience. They need to know how to be calm themselves and give permission for intense emotional catharsis; and, at the same time, to guide youth in expressing themselves considerately and respectfully. Youth cannot be left alone in their gloom or despair – even if they act contemptuously toward adults who reach out. Adults must be mature enough to withstand the seeming rejection from youth and stay steady in their loving, compassionate efforts to reach those who are visibly displaying symptoms of depression and dejection.
4. Youth are exposed to racism, sexism, lookism, classism, and homophobia daily. They need social allies and tools to undo the oppression of these forces; they need skills to become “upstanders” instead of bystanders to these social injustices, which are often accompanied by bullying or violent behavior. They need to know how to create friendship groups that are free from these toxins. Adults mentoring these teens need to know how to talk about the history and impact of the “-isms” and how to help youth through the emotional pain and humiliation of oppressive cultural norms or policies. They need to model empathy, curiosity, and problem-solving rather than lapsing into polarizing or demonizing attitudes, or adopting an attitude of bitterness and resignation.
5. Teens will know people who harm themselves, harm others, and even take their own lives. They need to know how to mourn, who to turn to for help, and how to ride the waves of desperation and unbearable darkness.
Young people bombarded by traumatic images and experiences need an entire village of adults who know how to facilitate intolerable sorrow. Adults need to be the people youth can emulate and trust with their feral despair; they need to model appropriate and transparent emotional release and transformation. Youth need to see that “older” means wiser – not jaded. Adults need to be a stand for a future worth living into, filled with rich and varied emotional experiences, meaningful social interactions, and each person having a vital connection to their gifts and their communities.
What if safe and charismatic adult guidance was as graphic and prolific as the unceasing violence teens see 24/7?
Perhaps “13 Reasons Why” is the beginning of honest, true discussions about what teens really do need and how we are going to provide it. Social and emotional intelligence is something that can be taught and is the essential skill set of any fulfilling life. We may not have a real way to control the content of the media youth are exposed to, but we can have the maturity and prescience to equip our teens and ourselves with the emotional apparatus needed to cope with the harsh realities and to thrive.