13 Reasons Why and When Kids Hurt

This blog post is another reflection about the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. Our Family and Youth Coordinator, Brenda Amodea, has written a reflection about it on our blog posted here. Brenda writes from a perspective of years spent on the front lines of ministry with young people and immense wisdom gained from that experience. She also references a number of other articles in her blog post that can serve as resources for parents who want to discuss this show with their teens.

Towards the end of my senior year in high school, a short time before his graduation, a classmate of mine committed suicide. He and I shared seventh period weight training our senior year, our only class together in four years of high school. While he and I would chat from time to time, it is most accurate to describe our relationship as acquaintances. And yet I can still remember the shock. I can still remember the confusion. I can still remember the collective hurt that I and my other classmates shared. And I can remember how incomparably devastating it was to my friends and classmates who knew him better than I did.

I recently finished watching the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why. It’s a show that has dominated the internet and social media over the past month, particularly for controversial reasons. 13 Reasons Why is a show about high school students but it is not a show for high school students. I imagine the shows creators would agree with that statement, however we live in a time where popular shows on Netflix, especially popular shows on Netflix about teenagers with an admittedly awesome soundtrack, are going to be viewed en masse by our young people. Young people have more access to information and content than ever before, often with increasingly less parental oversight. (I should clarify that what I mean by that is simply young people are able access content independently of their parents. I’m not saying parents are increasingly absent. But when content moves from physical VHS and DVDs and screens move from TVs in the home to cell phones accessed anywhere, the freedom given to young people in terms of content consumption increases exponentially)

In 2004, Chap Clark wrote a book called Hurt that was a sociological ethnographic study of teens. His shocking findings led him to conclude that our teens live in what he termed the “world beneath.” This is the world that young people create for themselves. This is the world of self-actualization, the world where young people try on various personas, the world where young people flex their autonomy.

Clark argues that adolescents create this “world beneath” out of necessity because of systemic abandonment of teenagers by institutions and adults who were originally designed to care for teenagers through adolescence. Adolescence is a psychologically and physiologically vulnerable, fragile, and confusing stage of life. Adolescents crave love, attention, and relationships as they try to navigate these waters. Clark asserts that abandonment of institutions and adults is “the defining issue for contemporary adults.”
In order to cope with this abandonment, adolescents create “the world beneath,” a safe space where teens can build relationships and find the community they seek. About the “world beneath” Clark says, “First, adolescents intuitively believe they have no choice but to create their own world: To survive, they have to band together and burrow beneath the surface to creat their own safe space. Second, because midadolescents sense and emotional and relational starvation, the most important thing in their lives is a relationally focused home where they know they are welcome. Third, midadolescents have an amazing ability to band together in a way that satisfies their longing to connect with others while trying to navigate the conflicting and at times harrowing journey of adolescence.” This becomes their world, their home. And to this world, which has its own rules and conventions and mores, adolescents pledge their allegiance over and above anything else.

13 Reasons Why is unrelenting in the way it depicts and reveals the brokenness of the “world beneath.” This show reveals the brokenness of teen and adolescent life. This show reveals the dangers that modern life pose to our young people. This show reveals the myriad ways our young people can get hurt, how our young people can get into trouble, and how our young people can attempt to cope with life outside of coming to and being in relationship with trustworthy adults.

If you watch this show as an adult you will find yourself screaming at these young people to seek out a caring, trusting adult. Every character in this show needs an adult who loves them. Every character in this show’s story could be made better if a trusting adult entered into his or her life. Instead, coping with the systemic abandonment of institutions and adults, every character lives in the “world beneath” and is hurt by his and her existence in that world.

Teens need a relationship with a trusting, caring adult. In order to navigate adolescence our young people need to know that they are loved by adults and that they have people they can turn to when adolescent life is painful. In fact, teens crave this relationship. We hope this will be their parents. But it needs to be someone.

After depicting life in the “world beneath” Clark offers up ways to move forward, ways how institutions and adults can care for teens who feel abandoned. And Clark offers this following testimonial of a high school student who found relationship and care and love from a church group:

“As I came to know my cell group leader more and more, I realized, Hey, she’s got a lot in common with me. Maybe I can trust her. She’s not gonna hurt me. She became my safe place. At this point, school was draining the life out of me. Anything I wanted I could get, most of the time for free. And I would take anything I could get. During this time, I confided in Monica, my cell group leader. She knew I was crying out for help, and she gave it to me in every way possible. I don’t know how many times she picked me up, how many times she flushed drugs, how many times she and her husband opened their home to me. I got to the point where I wanted to end it all. I was going to kill myself. But Monica stayed on me and kept caring. Finally, she took me to my mother’s office and made me tell almost everything. I was so ticked at the time, but I am so thankful now. If it wasn’t for her—Monica—I would definitely be dead.”

At Spirit & Life we want to provide our teens with as many trusting, caring adults as we can. We want to equip parents to have thoughtful, important conversations with their children. If you can talk about your faith, about what God has done in your life and what God is doing and why we wake up super early on Sunday mornings every week to come to church, then you can talk about anything with your teen. If you can explain why it is you follow Jesus, what difference Jesus makes in your life, what Jesus has saved you from with a young person, then you can talk about anything with that young person. At Spirit & Life we want to equip parents and other trustworthy, caring adults to have important conversations, to communicate with teens so that our young people know they always have someone in their corner. They always have someone in their life. They always have an option.

13 Reasons Why is a show about teenagers meant to show adults why our young people need us so badly. Growing up is hard and it takes resilience. And you need people on your side and in your life. If you’re a teen reading this, I hope you know that at Spirit & Life you will always have people in your life who love you and want to stand with you. If you’re an adult reading this, I hope you’ll find a way to stand with a young person and help them along this journey called life. Love can make all the difference in someone’s life, love can make all the difference in a teen’s life. Love can heal hurt; it has for all of us. Your love can heal the hurt in a teen’s life. Join a story and be part of God’s healing.

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