Can high school become a toxic environment?

Absolutely. I want to talk briefly today about 13 Reasons Why (the Netflix show), but don’t worry if you don’t care about that show. I’m going to make a bigger point that applies to all of us.

When the first season of 13 Reasons Why came out, I binge watched it and actually thought it was pretty good (though the graphic suicide scene and sexual assault scene were not needed). I wrote about it and provided some discussion questions that parents could use with kids, and recommended that parents watch it WITH their kids. So many kids were watching it anyway, I thought it was important to give a framework for conversation. And I thought the overall message–that things can look really, really bad when they actually aren’t that bad–was an important one for teens to hear.

That first season did so well that Netflix thought they should make a second season. Only problem? The first season was based on an actual book. So they had to create more problems to put into a second season.

I watched the first two episodes and gave up. It was way too much teenage angst, and I just couldn’t make it through. I know there’s a ton of controversy about the graphic sexual assault scene in this season as well, and I decided it wasn’t worth my time. (You can find some good discussion questions for the first and second seasons of 13 Reasons Why here, though). I certainly wouldn’t recommend the second season. The points were made in the first season; there’s no need for more teenage angst to fuel the fire.

But as I was watching those first two episodes, something bigger occurred to me.

The philosophy of 13 Reasons Why is this: “Teens have problems that seem really big. But if you will just talk to an adult, the problems won’t seem as big and you can get through them.”

They’re showing how teens get caught up in their own emotional state and don’t see the reality of the situation, and they really do need an adult.

So far so good. I think we can all likely agree on that–teens should talk to adults.

But here’s where things get complicated.

In the first two episodes that I watched, the adults did everything right. And the kids still didn’t talk to them.

These were not clueless parents. These were not teachers who didn’t care. These were not hopelessly “uncool” parents who could never understand. These parents were reaching out appropriately, and the kids STILL didn’t talk to them.

Why not?

It’s quite simple. I think the premise of 13 Reasons Why is wrong. 13 Reasons Why is trying to say that the solution to high school problems is to talk to your parents. I actually don’t believe that.

I think that the solution to a toxic high school experience is to get out of that high school.

No amount of talking is going to make that toxic high school less toxic. It may help you to navigate it better, but the truth is that some social environments become so toxic that you can’t remain in them and keep your mental state intact. You just can’t. And that’s what we parents need  to understand.

Not all high schools are toxic environments. Some of us had great experiences in high school. But a lot of high schools do become toxic environments, and if that’s the case for your teenager, the answer is not just to talk to them. The answer, I think, is to get them out.

We tell people in emotional and physically abusive marriages to get out. We tell parents to leave an abusive spouse for the sake of the kids. But if you think about it, as a teenager, you spend more time awake in your high school than you do with your parents. So if that teen would be better off away from an emotionally or physically abusive parent, then wouldn’t they be better off away from a physically or emotionally abusive high school?

The problem with high school is that there is no “out.” If you’re being bullied, there is no real way to escape that social peer group.

I was talking to my daughter Rebecca about this, and she reminded me of the helplessness/hopelessness theory of depression (she was a psych major). Basically, it goes like this: you learn that you’re helpless. Then you feel that it’s hopeless. And that’s when depression starts.

They tested this theory in a rather disturbing experiment with dogs that no ethics department would ever green light today. Experimenters zapped the floor where the dogs were corralled with electrical shocks at random intervals. At first the dogs started running around and trying to keep as little time as possible with their feet on the floor. Eventually they realized there was nothing they could do, and then they just lay down and took it. Even after the experimenters stopped shocking the dogs, the dogs never fully recovered. They were tremendously psychologically damaged.

I think high school can do this to some kids. That’s why 13 Reasons Why is so popular–people intrinsically know what it feels like to be bullied and to feel as if there’s no way out. But it’s also a reason why 13 Reasons Why doesn’t work, because their ultimate solution isn’t a solution. It’s not viable. Parents can’t fix it. Parents and kids inhabit two different worlds. No matter how much a parent talks to a kid, they cannot fix that the child’s world if the school has become a toxic environment.

Think about it this way: as an adult, we never put up with such a terrible social environment.

If your workplace were that toxic, you’d leave. If your church were that toxic, you’d find a new church. Adults can leave. But kids are stuck. And we seem to think that it’s their problem, and the schools should fix it.

But what if school is the problem?

You put all these kids who are hormonal all at the same time at the same stage in a class together and you expect everything to be fine. Now, many times it is. Maybe even most times it is. But sometimes it isn’t. And when it isn’t, there’s no escape that those kids can manage on their own. I think that’s why kids get into drugs and partying so deeply. They don’t know what else to do.

So here’s the solution that 13 Reasons Why should have promoted: You are a parent. If your child is in a bad situation, then give your child an alternative.

It’s okay for it to be a weird alternative.

You can switch schools. You can homeschool. You can do online school (many school boards offer credits online). You can take the GED and then do apprenticeships. At 16, you can take online classes in university (that’s what we did with our kids through Athabasca University. Then they transferred those credits to the University of Ottawa later).

Or you can help them get super involved in something outside of school so that school doesn’t matter as much. I worked about 16 hours a week when I was in high school and loved it. My jobs became my life. They made me not care about high school. I went through the motions, I walked home for lunch so I never had to eat in the cafeteria, and I was considered popular, because I didn’t care one whit.

So, yes, it’s important that teenagers talk to their parents. That’s a good message for teens to hear. But the bigger message that this sends us, I think, is that sometimes the world we ask our kids to live in is absolutely unliveable. No amount of talking can fix that. 

What do you think? Would you ever choose an alternative for high school? Let’s talk in the comments!

13 Reasons Why is Wrong: A look at the philosophy of the second season.

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