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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 11: Side 6A Missed Opportunities and Judging Others

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 13th 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
This is the tape Hannah made for Clay. Clay was attracted to Hannah but was too anxious, awkward and insecure to make it clear. Hannah wanted to date Clay but felt like she didn’t deserve him. They kiss at a party but she freaks out when they start to make out. Clay leaves confused and embarrassed. The kids on the other tapes continue to be more and more concerned about keeping all their secrets.

Clay realizes he is a really kind and decent guy but feels he was too quick to judge Hannah (and other people too). Two major themes of this episode are missed opportunities and judging others.

Missed opportunities
This was such a sweet episode about the approach/avoidance dance between teenagers who are attracted to each other. Adolescence is filled with fears of social rejection and failure and insecurity and hesitation (contrasted with fearlessness and foolishness and risk taking in other areas). And regret.

Research has found that regret lasts longer about the things people don’t do, the chances they don’t take rather than for regrettable things they do. (Though regret about things you do are more frequent and result in stronger, immediate emotional reactions).

What is the most frequent regret people report? Missed opportunities for romance, of course. This episode provides a great opportunity to talk
to your teen about living life without regrets (or, at the very least, without LOTS of regrets).

Encouraging your kid to take risks can be scary territory for parents because the chances teens may want to take (like getting drunk or high or breaking your rules) are not the same things parents mean by not having regrets (like missing the opportunity to tell someone you like them or risking failure by undertaking a challenging task or situation).

What’s a parent to do?
Live the dream. While life is filled with responsibilities and obligations and sacrifices it needs to also be filled with the pursuit of joy and hopes and dreams (in myriad forms). It’s all in the balance! Talk to your kid about their dreams, both small and large. Share your dreams with them. Talk about the dreams you had when you were younger (unless the end of that story is a lifetime of despair and misery. Save that talk for another time, if ever.) Talk about some things you regret not doing (that you wouldn’t mind your kid knowing about). Talk about the importance of having hopes and dreams that inspire you to try to accomplish things in your life. Talk about the importance of looking for joy in living. The size or scope of their hopes and dreams aren’t important. Some people have smaller aspirations; some larger. What brings one person joy and what they hope to accomplish and dream of being are as personal and individualized as you can get.

In the rush and press of getting your teen through adolescence, you can find yourself focusing only on the practical; on dependable skills and traditional accomplishments. Take time to encourage your kid to identify hopes they have for themselves and dreams for what they would like to accomplish – and to make some time to go after them.

Encourage them to fail. It is widely acknowledged that in order to learn, you must fail. Unfortunately, in our culture, failure is seen as, well, failure. Your kid can end up focused more on not failing than on trying to succeed. Look up people who have dared to go after their dreams who succeeded-and failed. (See the Resources section below for some examples.) Have a conversation about both. Talk about why failure is so important. Encourage your kid to fail (by genuinely trying to accomplish something hard to attain).

Encourage risk taking. And then have your kid take the leap! Get them to take chances. Not crazy, dangerous risks. Just crazy risks. Try to help them avoid allowing uncertainty and fear to stop them from plunging ahead. Help them risk awesome success (even when you are pretty sure it is going to be a spectacular failure). Try asking specifically about things they haven’t dared because of the fear they may fail or look bad or be rejected.

“What have you been thinking about lately that you want to do? Something interesting or even a little scary? What’s holding you back? Want to see if we can figure out how you can take a shot at it?”

Sometimes, like in this episode, the risk can be for your kid to let someone know they are really interested in them. This kind of social risk is often more difficult to learn about from your kid and more difficult to encourage them to try. It’s worth asking. Talk to them about living life without unnecessary regrets. And to risk rejection-because who knows?

Help them recover and try again. Succeeding or accomplishing something important means being able to keep going when you fail (and you will fail if you are going for anything worthwhile). When your kid puts their heart into something or when they put themselves out there in a risky way and it doesn’t
work out, they will need time to recover. It hurts. It is demoralizing. It is depressing. The problem is not taking some time to lick your wounds. The problem is how to get back up and go for it again. Pick them up, dust them off and give them a little push to get them going again.

 Here are a couple of Psychology Today blogs on failure and rejection I found helpful.
 There are books about very successful people, who failed, often repeatedly before achieving success.
Failure, the Secret to Success short video
Famous people who failed-and then succeeded spectacularly short video
 And here is a good summary of research on regret
 And here are regrets of some adults looking back on when they were 18 years old

Judging others
The main character, Clay, heard the rumors about Hannah being easy and had a “where there’s smoke there must be fire” reaction. (Like most of us, he seems to have missed “Judge not lest ye be judged.” — Matthew, 7:1. Or maybe he has been watching most media these days with its focus on shame, humiliation and mocking the mistakes and faults of others.)

He also missed out on a potentially cool relationship because of it. (And he also added to Hannah’s feelings of isolation.) Judging others for their faults and inadequacies represents a failure of empathy, compassion and humility. At the same time, adolescence is a time of comparison and competition and jealousy. So judging others is a common failing of teens in need of parental guidance. To counteract your teenager’s tendency to judge, they need to be more empathetic, compassionate and humble.

What’s a parent to do?

Cultivate empathy. Promoting a feeling of empathy for others involves having your teen appreciate another person’s emotional pain and upset. Being empathetic includes assuming someone’s behavior or situation in life could result from their trying to adapt or make the best of a bad situation. Make a game of generating sincere, genuine explanations for others actions that otherwise would seem selfish, inconsiderate or wrong.

“He must be in a real hurry to risk running us off the road and killing us all in a
fiery car crash. Bless his heart.”

Empathy is in part about giving the other person the benefit of the doubt (whether they deserve it or not).

Promote compassion. Promoting a feeling of compassion for others in your kid involves having them appreciate that other people can be experiencing great difficulty in their life. Compassion arises from walking a mile in their shoes. Compassionate people understand that bad things can happen to good people. They know about the misfortune, troubles, difficulties and challenges others face. Help your kid begin to appreciate that people can be caught up in circumstance, bad luck, random occurrences and a thoughtless moment that can set off a whole chain of negative events. (And, they need to be primed for when “there but for the grace of God” go they.) Volunteering for organizations that help people in need
can be a good way to develop or expand your kid’s compassion for others.

Practice humility. Promoting a feeling of humility in your kid involves having them appreciate their own failings, shortcomings and faults when they are tempted to judge others. You can help them be more humble by having them think back on a time when they caused harm, messed up or were less than
honorable. And reminding them of the forgiveness and grace that was extended to them when that happened or how much they would have appreciated having forgiveness and grace at that time in their life. Other people deserve the same consideration. This means your kid must be able to admit mistakes and recognize their limitations.

Build up rather than tear down. There is such a temptation to tear other people down as a way to feel less inadequate during adolescence. It is a combination of insecurity and ambition and self-doubt, among other factors. And it is so destructive! Be sure to explicitly talk about the importance of being a positive influence in the world, someone who builds others up rather than tears them down. Interrupt them when they launch into criticism and demeaning comments (particularly when the other person hasn’t even done anything to your kid). And don’t forget about addressing the effects of hate TV culture (i.e., reality shows that hold the participants up to mockery and derision, criticizing and mocking shows and people as a form of entertainment, etc.). It’s fun but contributes to a pattern of criticism and derision that can end up being turned on the self (i.e., “If I can criticize that person for all these faults, what about my own shortcomings?”). Encouraging them to practice building up others is actually a way of protecting your kid from themselves.

Loving kindness meditation is a technique for focusing on the positive in other people
Raising a Character booklet by Dr. James Wellborn
 The folks at Greater Good have a good article on compassion

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.

Episode 12 highlights the problems with alcohol and drug abuse and the importance of making good decisions. In the next column you will find some ideas about addressing these issues with your teenager.

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