Editor’s note: Sign up for CNN’s Stress, But Less newsletter. Our six-part mindfulness guide will inform and inspire you to reduce stress while learning to harness it.
A teenager drags a suitcase full of drugs, another is the victim of statutory rape, and many of the sex scenes feature full-frontal nudity. It’s “Euphoria,” which might be your favorite show — but that’s understandable if it’s not the template you want for your own teenagers.
So what do you do if they’re already binging it?
The most underrated parenting tool is the pause button on your TV remote, says therapist John Duffy, who specializes in working with teens, parents, couples and families.
Use it to pause violence, addiction, sexually explicit content or even just morally gray situations and start a conversation between you and your child, added Duffy, who is based in Chicago.
As kids and teens watch more of their entertainment on their personal devices, it can be difficult to know exactly what they’re watching. And with shows like “13 Reasons Why,” “Game of Thrones,” and more recently “Euphoria,” the content teens talk about with their friends seems to have gotten darker and more mature in their themes in recent years, a said Lisa Damour, an Ohio-based clinical psychologist.
It can be alarming to watch your child go from laughing with SpongeBob to being glued to a show where teenagers do drugs, have sex and engage in violence – but the answer may not lie in a conference or a total ban, Lisa said. Ramirez, a child and adolescent psychologist at Cleveland’s MetroHealth System.
“The challenge is that once they hit 15, you can’t really regulate what they watch,” Damour said. “The effort to be of service to them has to come much more in the form of having meaningful conversations.”
No matter how uncomfortable it may be, having open conversations with your young children, tweens, and teens about the shows they watch can help them put the shows into context, develop their value system, and know that they have support if they find themselves in difficult situations, the experts said.
“It’s better to be in that conversation and use that pause button to talk about it, and then be completely irrelevant and in the dark about what your child is watching,” Duffy said.
Starting early, being in the know, and asking questions can help your family have positive experiences, even if you’re not thrilled with what your kids are broadcasting.
On the first day of school, a second grader may be thrilled to know that his dad thinks his outfit is cool. In fifth grade, they might not care as much, Ramirez said.
As we move from childhood to adolescence, the opinions that matter most to us shift from those of our family to those of our peers, she added. It can help to form the habit of communicating about the world and values before this transition occurs.
Conversations don’t have to be limited to sex, drugs and rock and roll — it’s also helpful for families to talk to kids about more tamer stuff, Ramirez said.
What do you think of the way this character was treated? What would you do if you were in their place? Have you ever seen someone being left behind at school?
“We can’t always protect them from everything, so we have to help develop that problem-solving ability and understand when something is wrong,” Ramirez said.
“It’s impossible for my kids to watch anything explicit,” you might be thinking. And you’d probably be wrong, Duffy said.
“I’ll hear from kids that they’re watching something that their parents are sure they’re not watching,” he said.
Even if they’re not watching TV in the living room, they could be on their phones or at friends’ houses, he said. (The days of TV shows playing on just one TV in the house are long gone.)
It’s important to get familiar with what they’re actually watching first and even watch it yourself, Damour said. A show like “Euphoria” can sound much better or much worse, depending on who describes it to you, Ramirez added.
If you can handle it — and if your teen allows it — try watching their shows with them so you can provide context and ask questions in real time, Duffy said. It can be uncomfortable to watch and talk about a scene with adult behavior next to your teenager, but it can help to be clear about it.
“Be really explicit about it,” Duffy said. Try this: “We need to talk about sex because it’s important. I’m not comfortable with it, and I don’t expect you to be comfortable with it,” Duffy suggested.
Then you can come to an agreement together on how you’ll talk about it — like setting timers to only speak in short bursts, he added.
Let’s say your child happens to be watching something you’re not comfortable with. Your impulse may tell you to tell them why it’s inappropriate and why they’re not allowed to watch it again, Damour said. Take a break and talk with them instead.
Start with questions asking what their reaction to the content is, why they were interested in watching, and whether they’ve experienced things like what they saw on the show, Ramirez said.
You might find that they’re also upset about the same things you are, or have questions you can answer, Damour said. You can also start a conversation about your values as a family and how you hope they react to the pressures they might face as a teenager, she added.
A teenage girl told Damour she was watching a show that depicted rape, and when her father responded to the scene with shock, she felt validated, Damour said.
Her father’s reaction reassured the teenager that she was right to feel disturbed by the violence, Damour said.
Media portrayals can normalize adolescent sexual violence, Damour said. Knowing what they see can start conversations about what they may consider normal and what they shouldn’t, Duffy said.
Helping them shape those perceptions can be especially important when it comes to portrayals of people of color or LGBTQ people, Ramirez said.
Portrayals of these groups can often be incomplete or inaccurate, and watching shows together opens the door to talking about stereotypes and celebrating shows that present diversity in a more positive way, she added.
Some of these topics can seem difficult and complicated, but a direct approach often helps, Ramirez said. And while you can’t dictate everything they watch, you can guide how your teens think about it, she added.