Thirteen Things to Talk to Your Teen About 13 Reasons Why A Parent’s Guide Episode 12: Side 6B Alcohol and Drugs & Decision Making

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

[Note: It has recently come to light that the author of the book this video series was based on has been expelled from The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for violation of their harassment policy as reported by Deadline.]

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 fourteenth 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

The kids on the tapes are subpoenaed to testify and they start to crumble under the weight of their secrets.  Several of them begin to take responsibility for what they have done.  One of them tries to kill himself.  On the tape in this episode, Hannah turns to drinking to deal with feeling worthless.  This leads to her being at Bryce’s party where he rapes her in his hot tub.  Clay visits Bryce and gets him to confess.  It is particularly clear how alcohol and drug use and the decisions you make can result in catastrophic problems.

Alcohol and Drugs

There is a dizzying array of resources to help parents address alcohol and drug use with their teens (see resources section below).  The entire 13 Reasons Why video series is one long advertisement for the problems with teenage alcohol and drug use.  Here are some of the important components in dealing with adolescent alcohol and drug use.

Educate yourself.  Nothing stops your kid from listening to you faster than when you are wrong.  (Not when they THINK you are wrong, but when you ARE wrong.)  Your kid can immediately access any information about alcohol and drug use.  Make sure you have already looked things up yourself.

Parents are always right.  With that being said, facts and research are only one component of a parent’s position on alcohol and drug use.  There are also personal, religious, moral, legal and biological reasons.  These are all based on your decision about what you consider to be appropriate and healthy for your child.  You will decide what you are going to tolerate (and not tolerate) and they have to live with it.

Build in protective factors.  Research on adolescent alcohol and drug use problems have identified a range of factors that are associated with the reduced likelihood of alcohol/drug abuse and addiction.  You can use these protective factors as a guide to what you will require your teen to have in their life, just to be safe (or to address your discovery of their alcohol and drug use).

Develop an alcohol and drug use policy.  Be clear.  Be concise.  Be consistent.  Make sure your kid knows beforehand what will happen if they use.  I have some suggestions about constructing an A&D policy in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century.  There are also lots of people who have suggestions for developing a policy listed in the resources section below.

Drug screens are your friend.  The “smell test” is dead, may it rest in peace.  Before the advent of modern, affordable technology, parents had to stop their children after a night out and sniff them all over, glare into their eyes and talk to them; all to assess whether they had used alcohol or drugs.  Now, technology has made instant urine drug screens and breathalyzer apps for your smart phone affordable and easily accessible.  When you are worried, test them.

All of teenage risky behavior (especially sex) is strongly related to alcohol and drug use.  When kids are under the influence, they are likely to end up doing things that get them in trouble or create personal problems.  Keep a close eye on your kid when it comes to alcohol and drug use.


Decision Making

Another rape!?  I know.  Look, while there isn’t an epidemic of rape among adolescents this episode does provide a realistic portrayal of how rape can occur in a “normal” teen situation (around the very WORST kind of guy in a risky setting).  It is an intense and very disturbing scene.  With pornography regularly portraying sex scenes where the girl appears to enjoy being forced to perform sexually, your kid, especially your son, can have a distorted idea about what is appropriate and what really happens in situations where sex is unwanted and forced on another person.  Your daughter, on the other hand, needs to appreciate how things can go very wrong.  Teens need to know how decisions they make can have a cascading effect, ending up in a very different place than where they imagined or hoped.

Decision making is a rational process for choosing a path based on a set of underlying principles, morals and priorities.  To make a true decision, you have to be aware of the potential costs and benefits your decision will have for important areas of your life: safety, health, relationships, future goals.  Actions taken without rational decision making are just an impulse or reaction; both of which interfere with successfully accomplishing long term goals.

Moral compass.  Human beings become irrational when they are experiencing strong emotions (e.g., anger, hunger, fear, frustration, sexual arousal, etc.).  And, we are frighteningly unaware how these “hot” states will affect their decision making.  In a highly emotionally charged situation, people say they will do one thing when they are calm and rational and end up doing something completely different when they are actually in the situation.  To make the decision your kid considers to be “right” requires them to set up the criteria for right and wrong before the situation arises.  And, to apply it regardless of how they feel.

One of the primary reasons morals are so important is they provide a clear, universal guide to how to act, right and wrong.  Decision making that doesn’t rely on a moral core will be swayed by immediate impulses, passion or hedonistic desires.  You can still have fun and even take risks while maintaining your principles.  But, it usually takes some practice (and mapping things out) to figure out how to do keep your moral compass in all sorts of emotionally charged situations.  Talk to your kid about what basic principles they plan on using when making decisions.  Let them know about this “hot state” flaw in our decision making.  Make sure they are aware of how important it is to make important decisions when calm and clear headed.  And, to not allow themselves to change their mind when in the middle of the situation.  Help them think through how they will maintain boundaries with what is right on the inside and what is wrong on the outside.

But morality isn’t enough.

What’s your goal?  Decision making begins with identifying what you are trying to accomplish.  This can be making good grades.  It can be drinking and having a good time at a party (which isn’t inherently immoral).  Trouble (of the making poor decisions type) happens when you aren’t clear about what you are actually trying to accomplish.  This is particularly true when it comes to the challenge of having fun while still making good decisions.  Most kids (and far too many adults) avoid acknowledging to themselves what they are really trying to accomplish (e.g., hooking up, getting high, being crazy) because of embarrassment, shame, anxiety, or moral conflicts.  This makes them likely to just not think about it; to avoid those pesky upsetting feelings.  There are also kids who just don’t give any thought to what could go wrong (“That’ll never happen!”).  Not because they are avoiding some conflict or unpleasant feelings but because they tend to just jump into the deep end.  And, unfortunately, teens are neurologically predisposed to take more risks (and to be less thoughtful about them).

You can help your teen improve their decision making by encouraging them to identify what they want to accomplish in various areas of their life (and having fun is one of those).  You don’t have to wait for the next party (though good decision making is an excellent pre-party discussion to have).  Start small.  What are their goals for the day, for a particular class, for a skill they are trying to develop? Talk in terms of goals and goal setting, especially in situations that are vague and nebulous like making good decisions while out with their friends or on a date.

Identify ALL possible options for achieving the goal.  Once you have identified what you want to accomplish, the next step in decision making is to review the range of options available to reach that goal.  This is another area where teens experience difficulty.  They tend to have a relatively limited range of possible options to draw on.  “Let’s see, don’t drink at all and be bored but avoid trouble or get drunk, have fun and risk getting busted.”  Adolescents tend to either a) have difficulty identifying more than a few possible options for achieving a goal or b) can identify a range of options but only focus on the fun one(s).  So, plan on helping them with both.  Take time with your kid to generate as many options as possible for accomplishing a goal.  Get them in the habit of assuming there are a range of options for any situation.

But, even when teens can identify a wide range of possible outcomes and options, they differ from adults in their assessment of the likelihood things will turn out badly.  Teens have a much greater tolerance for risk.  And, compared to adults, they are more likely to focus on the potentially fun or exciting options, downplaying the possibility of negative outcomes.  So, part of reviewing possible options for accomplishing a goal is to examine the potential positive and negative outcomes of each option.  (And consider reviewing my blog on Regret.)  Be sure to acknowledge the fun, exciting aspects of options while you also have them clearly elaborate how bad it could be if, against all odds, things go badly.  What are options that are both fun AND have less severe negative outcomes.

Decide.  Then, have your kid pick something.  Give them plenty of chances to make decisions.  Out loud.  In front of you.  “What should we do about (   )?”  “Where should we go to eat tonight?” “What are we going to do for a trip this year?”  When it involves decisions about what they will be doing with their friends, don’t require them to tell you what they have chosen.  After the situation has played itself out, review with them how it turned out.  Assess the quality of their decisions.  (You can add this to part of the punishment when they get caught.)  How was the decision about that restaurant, movie, trip?

Encourage risky decision making.  And, finally, try to find opportunities for your kid to make some high risk decisions.  This is a big hole for most of us in parenting teens.  We tend to focus all our efforts on discouraging them from making risky decisions.  Unfortunately, it means we don’t get to help them figure out how to make a “good” risky decision (and accept the consequences if it goes badly).  And we don’t get the opportunity to help them evaluate whether it was worth it or not.

So what’s the take away?  Find every opportunity for your teen to practice good decision making but don’t expect it to change their risk taking, at first.  You are building in the structure for good decision making, giving them practice and waiting for them to grow up a little, when it will serve them well.


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.


Kindness and noticing others are two prominent issues in Episode 13.  The next (and final) column in this series will give you some ideas about addressing these issues with your teenager.



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