DR. JAMES WELLBORN: Thirteen things to talk to your teen about 13 Reasons Why


DR. JAMES WELLBORN: Thirteen things to talk to your teen about 13 Reasons Why

A Parent’s Guide

Episode 7: Side 4A Friends Taking Risks & Flirting

Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17-year-old girl, Hannah, who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the eighth in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.

Episode Highlights
Zack, a popular athlete, likes Hannah and tries to be supportive when she is insulted and rejected by a guy from the last episode. He tries to sincerely compliment her but does it badly (and insensitively).

Hannah writes an anonymous note about how bad she is feeling and Zack ignores the fact that he knows it was Hannah. Clay continues to be disturbed, depressed and angered by the tapes and confronts Zack.

Clay’s parents continue to try to figure out how to reach Clay.

Here are some ways to help your kid figure out what to do about a friend who is starting to take a lot of risks and also how to give flirtatious compliments that aren’t insulting.

When a Friend is Taking Risks
There will be times when your kid is worried about a friend; worried because their friend is putting themselves in (or are just IN) dangerous situations or heavily using alcohol or drugs or starting to hang out with troubled kids or doing things they could get arrested for.

Worrying about a friend who is doing risky things is difficult for teens. First because most risky things are also “cool.” Talking to a friend in those situations about taking a step back from risky behavior can make your kid look boring and like a loser. Saying something about it can come across as judgmental and preachy. And this could be the beginning of a change in the friendship if the friend doesn’t want to pull back and your kid doesn’t want to join them on the edge. Here are some of the things for your kid to keep in mind that might help the conversation go better.

Bring it up. “Dude! What’s going on with this?” “Hey, can we talk?”

Express concern. “I’m really starting to worry about how much you are drinking/smoking/using.” “Something is going on. You are taking way too many risks.” “Something has changed lately. It’s like you don’t care about things like you used to.” “You seem really down like all the time.”

Give your opinion. “It’s like you quit caring about things.” “You are about to ruin things for yourself.” “You’ve got to slow down/stop all this.” “You need a break. Things are getting way out of control.”

Get their opinion. “Can you even see how out there you are?” “Why are you (taking a lot of risks/blowing off things you used to care about/getting messed up all the time now/hanging out with these people)?” “How does it seem to you?” “Aren’t you worried about what you are doing?”

When they put you off. “Hey! It’s ME. Don’t act like I’m just anybody saying this.” “Would anyone else tell you?” “Now I’m really worried. You would never say that to me, not after all we’ve been through.” “Seriously!? Remember when you and I (shared some experience together). This is ME you’re talking to.”

When to do something. It’s one thing to be dancing close to the edge, it is another if your kid is worried their friend is going over the edge. Their friend may need rescuing from the situation. If the risk is happening in front of your kid then they may need to directly intervene. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. This is looking like a bad scene.” “Why don’t we go get you sobered up?”

When to consult. The friend may not recognize or be interested in avoiding the risks they are taking. When your kid is really worried and they haven’t been able to get their friend to take them seriously, it is time for your kid to consult. This means talking to someone who can help your kid problem solve ways to help their friend. That can be school counselors, youth ministers, trusted adult friends, older siblings, siblings of your friend and, most importantly, you. Your kid may even need to get someone involved like their friend’s parents or the police (if there aren’t any less drastic measures they can take). There are times when keeping a friend safe or alive is more important than keeping the friendship.

Giving Compliments
Teenagers are terrible at flirting. It is in part because of the crude, in your face nature of the relationships portrayed on TV, in movies and on the Internet. (And, of course, PORNOGRAPHY!) Anyway. Flirting is the fine art of respectfully signaling to someone you are attracted to them in a playful, subtle and indirect way. At the core of flirting is the ability to give (and receive) a compliment.
Given the models your kid is exposed to these days (see these disturbing examples of especially clumsy and crude compliments and flirting) it’s no wonder compliments have a tendency to go awry. In this episode of 13 Reasons Why, Zack thought he was complimenting Hannah without realizing the unintended effect it had on her. His inexperience and lack of awareness of what his  compliment suggested messed the whole thing up. Here are some of the components of effective compliments that can be worth sharing with your teenager:

Boundaries. One of the developmental tasks of adolescence is recognizing and developing boundaries (the framework for your identity). This means initially they will be clumsy, awkward, crude and stupid about boundary issues, their own and others. They will need your help. Have a talk with your kid about respecting personal space. Talk to them about the importance of getting permission (see discussion of Consent in Episode 6 column) before they make presumptions about whether someone will be OK with what they do or say. “I would really like to sit next to you so maybe we can talk. Are you down with that?” Talk to your kid about how some people are more cautious and reserved when it comes to
relating to a potential dating partner or talking about intimate aspects of their lives (like sex). Your kid will need to know it is not OK to step across “the line” of talking about sex or topics that are private until you know the person is OK with it. (And having a reputation for being easy or experienced does not
mean you can assume they are OK with it.)

Body language. Compliments can be non-verbal. (And, harassment can be non-verbal.) Looking in someone’s direction and smiling at them, maybe a slight hand wave, can be a compliment. Looking someone up and down, pausing to gaze at their sexual parts is NOT a compliment. Making eye contact, looking down and then making eye contact again IS a compliment. Grabbing your crotch and sticking your tongue out in a lurid, sexual way is not a compliment. Body language compliments are done at a distance, are subtle, just a little hesitant and mostly done with the eyes. Touching someone you don’t know well (and who has not given permission) is never a compliment.

Genuineness. The best compliments are sincere and come from the heart. They identify a personal quality that you admire, enjoy, value and appreciate. The intent is to share a positive impression of the other person rather than increase the chances of hooking up with them. Compliments should highlight a distinctive characteristic about the core qualities of a person rather than their superficial features.

“You are really funny” rather than “You have a great body” “You are really easy to talk to” rather than “I just HAD to come over here to talk to YOU!” “It’s really easy to hang with you” rather than “I really want to get to KNOW you” “I like your jeans” rather than “Those new jeans make your butt look great!”

Subtlety. The best compliments are understated and indirect. They are not crude and graphic. The best compliments direct the other person’s attention to their positive personal qualities. They don’t focus on superficial, sexual attributes or their sexual availability. A common example of very inappropriate compliments is street harassment. This is where people (primarily guys) make cat calls or loud remarks about a stranger passing by. “Oooh, baby! Work it!” “Damn, you lookin’ FINE girl” “You are looking FINE boy.” Nope, not a compliment. Yep, sexual harassment.

Don’t believe the stupid media! And one place teens get the wrong ideas about what is appropriate to say and do when complimenting and flirting with someone is women’s and men’s and girl’s and boy’s lifestyle magazines and media (and PORNOGRAPHY). Just look at this. These “lifestyle” publications are filled with “how to” guides on flirting, getting someone to notice you, what a guy/girl really wants, on and on and on. Your kid will need to be inoculated against the ridiculous messages and strategies they are provided through popular media (and PORNOGRAPHY). Did I mention that you need to inoculate your teen against the messages they get from our PORNOGRAPHY culture? Just wanted to mention it.
Finding the line. If you can’t tell when you are pressuring someone, intruding on them or making them uncomfortable, you can’t tell if you are crossing the line from compliments to harassment.

When are sexual compliments OK? Teenagers tend to jump steps when they are excited about something. It can get them in lots of trouble. They have a tendency to stumble all over themselves in their enthusiasm, taking too much for granted.

This is true for compliments and for flirting, in general.

There is a place for compliments about appearance and sexual desirability. It is a wonderful and erotic part of the build up to and involvement in sexual intimacy.

It’s fun, verbal play. But. You must be sure the other person is open to and is complimented by these kinds of sexual remarks, thoughts and observations. That means you have to know the person well enough. Flirting is a progression from very subtle to more direct. You need to have clear and definite signals from the other person that they invite and appreciate these kinds of comments before you become more direct. You must make sure you have consent (see previous column on Consent).

Unfortunately, compliments and (respectful) flirting seem to be a dying art. Help your kid become skilled in this wonderful human tradition before it disappears forever.

Resources: This is an excellent resource for responding to street harassment. Here is a great resource on flirting. And here are some examples of failed flirting.

Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers.  The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks.  They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.

Next: Burn out and keeping confidences will be the topics of the column based on Episode 8.

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