13 Reasons Why and Parent-Adolescent Communication


Written by Alexis R. Lauricella, Ph.D. & Drew. P. Cingel, Ph.D

Communication can be a very powerful tool for educating and supporting youth. When children are little, we feel that the “why?” questions will never end. By the time our children are in middle school, however, we wonder if we will ever be able get a response to a question that is more than a “yeah” with an accompanying eye roll. We know that getting tweens and teens to talk about anything can be a huge undertaking and getting them to talk about the serious, important, and scary parts of their lives can be nearly impossible. But, maybe, entertainment media can help.

To the surprise of many critics, our recent research, published in a report for the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University demonstrates that viewing 13 Reasons Why – an intense, graphic, and emotional original Netflix series about a teen’s suicide – may have supported conversation between teens and parents. Somewhat surprisingly, even the adolescents felt the show supported conversation with their parents and many adolescents reported that they actually asked their parents to watch the show.

Although the show was developed as an entertainment program, Netflix creative executive Brian Wright acknowledged that they wanted this to be something that supported communication and enhanced empathy; our research suggests that it has done just that. Parents in four regions around the world reported that they felt it was easier to have conversations about tough topics with their adolescent, including sexual assault, depression, and suicide after watching 13 Reasons Why. Additionally, many adolescents reported that they feltmore comfortable talking to peers, parents, teachers, and counselors about these same topics after viewing.

Parenting experts suggest that parents should learn about the things that are of interest to their adolescent as a way to connect, but as many parents know, finding a shared interest between a parent and teens can be difficult. This research suggested that 13 Reasons Why may be that shared interest, or at least a shared experience that can help prompt parents and adolescents to talk about these topics.

While the 13 Reasons Why is intense and covers some very tough topics like peer sexual assault, online and offline bullying, and suicide, these are issues that tweens and teens around the globe experience. It is often hard for parents to get their teens to open up about their own personal experiences with these issues, as teens are seeking independence and are desperately trying to convince themselves that they don’t need their parents like they used to. However, teens do need their parents and want their parents to know and talk about these issues with them. The problem is that they generally don’t know how to ask or talk about these topics – and neither do their parents. This is again where a show like 13 Reasons Why may be of help. By watching the show together, or even separately, parents and adolescents can have a shared experience. Parents can get a glimpse into a fictional storyline that, according to many adolescents, feels like an authentic depiction of high school life. Adolescents can have faces and names of fictional characters to provide some distance in order to discuss issues, emotions, and circumstances that may be happening in their own lives. Rather than talking about their own struggles, they cantalk about how they can relate to the characters in the show.

While this research demonstrates that this show can help many parents and adolescents feel more comfortable talking about these difficult topics, parents and adolescents asked for more resources to help them have effective and positive conversations with their children about these topics. Netflix provides additional resources here.

Overall, this research points to the powerful role that media can have in bringing parents and children together in a shared experience that supports conversation for many families. Although certain depictions may seem intense, we found that exposure to 13 Reasons Why helped many adolescents feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts about mental health to supportive adults, and prompted many parents to discuss these topics with their teens. These are important, positive findings in the context of parent-child communication, and the well-being of adolescents.

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Infant Conversation

Kindergarteners are fun. They can have full conversations with you and complete tasks you ask of them (e.g., clearing their plate from the table).

Toddlers are exciting, Their language is developing at such an amazing rate that it’s hard to keep track. One day they are putting two or three words together, the next they are making you laugh hysterically with their short, but adorable sentences.

Even older infants are entertaining. When they say their first words or utter “momma”, “dadda” or the dogs name for the first time, parents melt and then talk incessantly trying to get them to say these words again.

What about newborns?  Adorable yes, but interactive? Not exactly. And early on, they are provide few verbal interactions, limited to the cry and shout-out variety.  This can make it tough for parents to know how or want to interact with their babies. But this is an important time for brain and language development and all the language and interaction parents can do with their tiny babies can help. So here are some ideas of ways to interact with your very teeny, tiny, newborn. Remember to use your parentese voice- that singsongy voice that adults automatically use when talking to babies.


1, Have a Conversation. Pretend you and your baby are having a conversation.  Ask her a question and give her time to respond. If your baby has started cooing, give her a chance to coo in response and then you respond as if she told you something fascinating,  This back and forth exchange is great for language development and something you can start as early as birth.

2.  Read books. You may have been given a bunch of board books for your infant, these typically contain one picture and one word per page. You can read these to your infant, but it might be incredibly boring for you. Instead invest in some classic kids books like Dr. Seuss, Corduroy, The Giving Tree, Where the Wild Things Are, etc, and read these to your newborn.  They will be more enjoyable for you. At this point your baby is benefiting from the language interaction and is  not so focused on the storyline and plot so it won’t matter that it is above her comprehension level.  On that note, you can also read aloud whatever adult book, blog, newspaper, or magazine you are currently reading.  Remember in the movie Three Men and A Baby, when Tom Selleck is reading a trashy novel to the baby using parentese and says it doesn’t matter what he says, its his voice that the baby likes?  Well, same idea, the language helps so read something you enjoy sometimes too.

3. Tell stories. Sometimes new parents aren’t ready to be the creative storyteller yet, but storytelling doesn’t have to be the plot for the next Harry Potter series.  Tell your baby how you and your partner met.  Tell her about your favorite vacation or that embarrassing moment in college. My father, an architect, told our baby details about every building in Chicago. Again, it’s the language and interaction that matter not necessarily the content at this point.

4. Sing Songs. Look it doesn’t matter if you could be a competitive singer on American Idol or if your dog whines in pain when you sing, singing to your baby is a great way to increase your interaction with him and help your baby’s language development. Some baby favorites are the ABC’s, The Wheels on the Bus, London Bridge, Hickory Dickory Dock, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Ants Go Marching (a great list of songs with lyrics can be found here).

5.  Talk about your day.  This can be reciting your To Do list or discussing what you used to do during the day before you were caring for a newborn. For example, tell him what you are doing when getting him dressed. “We are going to get dressed. We need to put on a new diaper, change our onesie, and pick out a new outfit”

Hope these ideas help and happy chatting!

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Pregnancy and Parenthood

Pregnancy is a unique period in which you have time (9 months) to prepare for parenthood. While this is a lovely, relatively long period of time, it is also the only period that you really have to prepare for the next 18- 30 years of this child’s life and your role as a parent. Of course you can read books, talk to other parents, join support groups, once your little one arrives. And you are “parenting” already during pregnancy when you are growing this person inside of you, but as all parents will tell you the time to do just about anything disappears as soon as that baby is delivered.

Once you get pregnant you may begin to read one of the 45,000 books about pregnancy (according to Amazon.com) (e.g., What to Expect When You Are Expecting) or articles from Baby Center to help guide you through the next 9 months of daily changes that are happening to you and your baby. You may take a class or read up on information related to labor and delivery. If you are particularly on top of things you might even take some classes on caring for infants or Infant CPR, or read about life postpartum and life with a newborn. And yes, there are the basic guidebooks for child development indicating when your child should reach certain milestones, like eating solid foods, crawling, walking, etc that you may flip through as you are trying to understand this wild child that has suddenly taken over your home. But what about the discussion about parenting? When do you read those books? Take those classes? When do you think about your new full-time job as a parent and how you are going to approach it?

In the US, there is support and encouragement for parents to prepare themselves for pregnancy and labor but minimal interest in preparing them for the ever-changing and ongoing challenges of parenthood. Im curious when parents start to think about and plan how they will parent. Assuming there are two parents (but many of these ideas are relevant and should be considered if you are single parent), when do you have the conversation about how you will talk to your child, how many books you will read each night, your philosophy about rewards and punishment? Do you just wait and see how it goes and then figure out if you and your partner actually agree about the bath, book, bedtime routine? Do you wait for your toddler to have a complete temper-tantrum, meltdown at the grocery store and then decide which of his demands you are going to give in to or how you are going to respond? What about sleeping arrangements? Are your children going to sleep in their own room or will be they bunking up with you? What about sleep and potty training and when to start and how to do it? What about introducing new foods or exposing your chid to different cultures or customs? What about religion, education, political views? What about rules and expectations for behavior and tone of voice? There are so many things to consider as parents, some big and some small, and many that we won’t even know about yet because they aren’t invented (like the future cell phone/tablet debates whatever they might be), but this is a recommendation to begin to talk about and consider some of these things now regardless of where you are on the parenting spectrum.

Of course, children change everything.You can have these grand plans for how you are going to parent and they could go completely out the window once you meet your little one and see their temperament and behavior.  But why not make a game plan in the same way you make a birth plan prior to delivery? Every doctor, nurse, midwife, and friend will tell you that your delivery will never go 100% according to plan, yet we write out an ideal birth plan months in advance of our delivery. My suggestion is that we also do that for parenting, at least to some degree.

Here are a few good parenting reads to get you going:

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp

How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood

Nine Steps to More Effective Parenting 



HuffingtonPost Parents

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In the United States, we tend to link the word “postpartum” to two things: 1. depression and 2. body/weight loss. But postpartum from a medical perspective means “relating to or happening in the period of time following the birth of a child” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  Unfortunately for new mothers, there is not a whole lot of information about this period of parenting.  When you google “postpartum” you find resources on almost exclusively on postpartum depression or things related to helping your body heal  or how to return your body to what it looked like pre-pregnancy, rather than the multitude of experiences that are all occurring immediately following the birth of a child.  Unlike the massive world of pregnancy-related guidebooks and information, there is very little in terms or resources or advice on how to survive those weeks postpartum for new moms!

While WebMD provides some basic information about the first 6 weeks postpartum, these simple paragraphs and tips do little to prepare a new mother for the reality of what is to come.  A friend of mine reflected on the experience just two weeks postpartum and said “I feel like they need to stop giving classes about labor since that is the fastest and easiest part. Instead, there should be extensive classes on surviving the first few weeks.”  Anecdotally it seems like people are relying on word of mouth advice and input that they receive immediately following the birth of their child, when they are most exhausted and overwhelmed and likely struggling to take any information in.

Why are new moms feeling so overwhelmed and so unprepared?

Well, because everything about giving birth is a new experience and there is nothing else that really happens in our life that is  so completely life-changing.  When else is your body changing daily for 9 months of pregnancy only to experience one wild day of labor (if you are lucky) in which your body has to physically remove the thing it has been growing and nurturing for nearly a year? Physical changes, check. Beyond the obviously physical experience, your hormones are going wild inside of you now.  Oxytocin, endorphin, and adrenaline help to regulate labor and delivery but these are all over the place postpartum as well. Wild hormones, check. All of this happens in the hospital (usually) and then they send you home.  With a brand new PERSON that you just created. A person who can’t talk to explain him or herself.  A person who  can only communicate in screams and cries! And a person who needs you to  feed it, clean it, and help it sleep constantly, and read its mind for when all of these things need to happen. There is no other life experience like this, hence why it is so difficult to be prepared.

That being said, you can’t easily prepare for much of anything in life and a lot of it can be life-changing, like  pregnancy, for example.  But yet, we try. We create resources and books, and we find experts that help to guide us through this novel and major life-changing experience.  The same should and can be done to help at least begin to prepare our new moms for the the wild and exciting and completely life-changing experience of bringing home that new beautiful baby.

More awareness and more resources are needed to help parents with all aspects of parenting, including this very emotionally and overwhelming period of postpartum. Here are a few resources that might be of helpful for moms and dads to be:

The SH!T No One Tells You: A Guide to Surviving Your Baby’s First Year by Dawn Dais

Natural Health After Birth: The Complete Guide to Postpartum Wellness by Aviva Jill Romm

Mothering the New Mother: Women’s Feelings and Needs After Childbirth: A Support and Resource Guide by Sally Placksin

WebMD Postpartum

MayoClinic Labor and Delivery, Postpartum Care

40 things about what to expect after labor and delivery, childbirth, and coming home that no one told me by Jane

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Adolescent Development

While this blog often focuses on young children,  children do grow up and parents eventually become the parents of adolescents. Adolescents is an interesting time in development in which kids are going through a second round of quick and intense physical, emotional, and cognitive development.  I think most parents think and recognize the physical and emotional development changes, probably because they are the changes that are directly in your face: giant growth spurts, voice changes, and sudden unpredictable moodiness.

The cognitive changes are less likely to be front-and-center for parents but are fascinating when they are considered. Adolescents are in what Piaget calls the Formal Operational Stage. A stage in which we begin to use more scientific, systematic thinking and in which we develop the capacity to truly think abstractly.  Unfortunately, these abilities to think and process more critically can have an impact on the way in which adolescents see themselves and also how they think about the world around them- for both the good and the bad.

During adolescents, teens are much more self-conscious and self-aware.  They tend to think that the world is more focused on them than it really is.  As a result, they become more self-conscious and try to avoid embarrassment.  At the same time, adolescents also feel that bad things couldn’t happen to them, even though cognitively they are able to understand risk and consequences better than in their early childhood days.  During adolescents, they develop a sense of invincibility which can lead to increased risk taking behavior.

Without getting too much into brain development, remember when your preschooler and elementary-school aged child had a hard time paying attention, following directions, and keeping different tasks in mind (first clean your room, then find your book, then you can play)? Interestingly, the part of the brain responsible for many of these actions, the prefrontal cortex, is still not fully developed by adolescence.  This plays a part in the risk taking behavior of adolescence because this is also the part of the brain that helps us weigh outcomes and controls our impulses and emotions.  And despite previous research, we now know that this part of the brain doesn’t even fully develop until the mid to late 20’s.

So why does this matter? I think sometimes parents of adolescents are as confused and overwhelmed as the teens themselves.  This is a period of rapid change and both parents and teens are adjusting simultaneously. Understanding that your teen is still not able to fully think like an adult, despite being bigger and already smarter than you, may help parents adjust their expectations and understanding of where their teens actually are in development.  Also, knowing that so much of their teen’s brain, body, and emotions are still in the process of developing and changing, may help parents predict and handle the situations that arise.


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All Mothers’ Day

It’s Mother’s Day. A day that has now spread to a massive card selling, brunch buying, flower sending, picture drawing holiday to thank and appreciate our moms. And our mothers deserve it! Our moms have been there for us through thick and thin and should be thanked and appreciated every day of the year, not just on Mother’s Day. A few years ago I wrote this post “Amazing Moms” and I meant ever word of it. Reading it again this year I realized that yes our biological moms, those who gave birth to us, should be recognized and thanked on Mother’s Day but so should the millions of other types of moms out there. So this year, I want to thank and appreciate all of the amazing moms on Mother’s Day.

Adoptive Mothers. Unlike biological mothers, you went and found your child. You may or may not have been able to have your own children, but you knew you wanted to be a mother and you knew there was a child out there that needed you. Adoptive mothers, although you did not give birth to your children, you are their Mom. You have put them to sleep each night, kissed their boo-boos, held their hand on their first day of school, hugged them as they cried over their first break-up, and continually told them that they were going to be OK. Maybe you have had to answer difficult questions about their biological parents and you likely have questions that you will never get the answers to. But through it all, you have supported and loved your child. You are amazingly special and should be appreciated and thanked today and everyday!

Foster Mothers. You are clearly something incredibly special. You take in children when they are the most vulnerable, the most alone, and in the most need. You open your house to a child you have never met and welcome them, care for them, and love them, all the time knowing that it may be just temporary. Many of your foster children have a mother that they know, miss, and want to be with on Mother’s Day. Many of the children that you have given so much for may not consider you their mother of give you any thanks on this day. But foster mothers, you are a loving, giving, and generous parent to these children and you deserve a very Happy Mother’s Day too!

Grandmother Mothers. Ladies, you are literally mother’s times 2. You raised your own kids and are now raising your children’s kids. You were loving, dedicated, supporting, and giving for your kids and are now you are doing it all over again for their children. I have a bad feeling you aren’t getting the Mother’s day thank you from your new kids and may not be getting it from your first round either. You grandmother mothers deserve a double-sized Happy Mother’s Day!

Step-Mothers. Society says you are not the real mother, you are a “step-mother”. Fairy-tales go so far as to label you as “wicked.” Yet each morning you wake up, you get your kids dressed, you hold them when they cry and tell you that they miss their mom, you wake up in the middle of the night when they have nightmares, you wipe up vomit, blood, and tears. You deal with comparisons and complaints that you aren’t their “real mom”, you wait patiently to be hugged 3rd or 4th, or not at all, after a piano recital, and you smile and respond positively whenever they tell you about how great life was when their parents were still together. Step-moms, you are mom’s too, despite how Disney has portrayed you, and you deserve a big Mother’s Day hug and thanks too!

Special Mothers. There are millions of types of mothers out there that may not be “official mothers” but should still be appreciated on Mother’s Day. For example, there are mothers who have raised their brother’s children, mothers who have carried and delivered another woman’s baby, and mothers who have donated eggs to help other families have children. There are woman who have always been there for children who’s biological mother’s weren’t around; maybe you didn’t live with and solely raise the child but you gave that child love, strength, and support every time they came by. You too are a mother.

Mothers, you are all amazing. No matter how you became a mother and regardless of whether you are your child’s biological mother of her 20th mother, thank you for being an amazing Mom! Happy All Mothers’ Day!

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Parenting and Technology

On Tuesday, the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University released a reported titled Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology to a packed audience in Washington, DC.  The repot has received a lot of press (see links below) but I want to talk about the findings of this report for parents (and with parents who want to comment!).

We surveyed a nationally representative sample of American parents of children under age 8.  That means, unlike a lot of the research that is reported in the popular press.  This is a sample of parents in the US that represents the entire US. This wasn’t a survey of  just white, middle income parents like many studies consist of; parents were economically, racially, and geographically diverse.  Also, parents were parents…. not just mothers: 42% were fathers.

There were a LOT of findings in this 31 page report. The press mostly jumped on a great headline: Parents Show Little Worry about Media Use.  But I want to talk a bit more about the findings that may be more relevant to the parents who on a daily basis are using or negotiating media use with their young children.

1.  Parents have a lot of concerns for their young children. Across all age groups, parents are concerned about the health and safety of their young children- almost half of the parents we asked said they were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned. Fitness and Nutrition also was noted as a concern for many parents.  Yes, media use was lower on the list of concerns, but 25% of parents of children under 2, 29% of parents 2-5, and 35% of parents ages 6-8 say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about media use.  Parents clearly have a lot of things they are concerned about: health, fitness, sleep, behavior, school, and yes while not quite so intensely as some others, some  are concerned about media.

2. Parents and children today live in a variety of environments that need to be studied even more deeply. Some families are active media users: TVs in the child’s bedrooms, many hours of technology use by parents and children, etc.  Some families are light media users: TV use is less frequently occurring (although, use is not zero for these families).  Technology is a part of nearly all families lives these days: just how families use it differs. For some families media use is a popular family activity, for other families it lands lower on the list.  But families today have access: TVs, Internet, Smartphones, Tablets, etc. It seems that the ways in which families use media differs by family type.

3. Parents do use media as a parenting tool but it’s not the only tool they rely on. Parents today are busy and they recognize the time crunch they are under.  Sometimes they need to keep children busy while making dinner. Sometimes they want to reward or punish their children for certain behaviors.  When these types of situations arise, parents get creative.  They use a variety of tools: books, toys, activities, TV and now that many have access to smartphones and tablet computers they use those tools too.

This is just the surface of this report.  There is a LOT of great information about how parents parent now that there is so much technology access in their homes and in their pockets.  More findings from this study will continue to be published to better understand the lives of parents and families in this age of digital technology. Stay Tuned!


Chicago Tribune

New York Times

Fred Rogers Center

USA Today


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