Watching 'Stranger Things' With My Teen Was Just The Therapy We Needed

by Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff
Originally Published: 

“Mom, it’s starting!” My 14-year-old daughter calls to me from the couch, where she is snuggling with the dog under an oversized blanket, like she has done for hours each day for the past year.

She didn’t always watch this much television – but then, the pandemic happened. My husband stopped working; my son, a college junior, and my daughter, a freshman, returned home, where my youngest was finishing seventh grade on Zoom. In those early months – all of us fragile and stunned – the rules went out the window. Television became our family’s collective escape.

Initially, I fought the extra screen time. Because although I grew up with TV, I wasn’t comfortable with it. Tiny and barely colorized, my childhood set was kept in a cold room off the kitchen; when a show came on – “Wonder Woman” or “60 Minutes” – we pulled in chairs from other rooms, as if circling around a campfire. I had more fun with books: By age five, I had discovered the mind-altering joy of reading on my own, blinking my eyes away from the page to realize that a few hours had passed. With a book in my hand, I could escape reality whenever I wanted.

My husband and I grew up with different perspectives on screen time, but we agree on science. Studies show that young children who watch a limited amount of educational television show an increase in cognitive skills; excessive watching (and less reading) is linked to a decline in adult I.Q. scores. As parents, the takeaway was clear – short of “Sesame Street,” screens should be limited.

Even today, we have just one television in our home. The only gaming system is Wii – and it’s dusty. In normal times, weeknights were for homework and family dinner at the table. When my children watched shows or movies on weekends, the content had to be appropriate for our youngest, who is eight years younger than our oldest. The three of them would sit on the couch together while the dog curled up on the rug at their feet.

Enter 2019.

We watched during dinner, consuming entire seasons of “The Office” and “Freaks and Geeks” along with comfort foods like lasagna and lentil soup. The dog made her way to the couch. When I worried about the negative impact of all this TV, my husband referred to a NIH-funded study that found screen time isn’t necessarily all that bad for kids. The biggest downside, he reported, was that it prevents them from doing other things, like playing outside or sleeping – which, as he pointed out, is also a disadvantage for children who read a lot.

Still, I was worried. Especially about my youngest. Eventually, the older two returned to college and roommates, but she attended school in her bedroom, with her shades drawn and her camera off. She kept her academic grades up, but stopped going to electives – even music, which she’d loved since she learned to play the baritone horn in sixth grade, when she was barely big enough to pick it up. For the first time in her life, my daughter was failing a class: Physical education had morphed into something called “Walking for Fitness,” and she refused to go outside.

We fed my daughter vitamin D, but her skin grew pale. She wore the same hoodie every day, and ringed her eyes with black eyeliner. Clothes piled up on the floor and dishes on the bedside table. This was more than just teenaged rebellion: In an out-of-control world, my daughter was exercising what little autonomy she had.

I know, I know: Parents aren’t supposed to try and fix our children’s problems. But even in 2018 – before the pandemic – suicide was the second leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14. I didn’t think my daughter was suicidal, but I worried that her self-neglect might become self-harm: Today, some estimates suggest 20% of American teens are depressed and up to 30% of adolescent girls report hurting themselves. Once, while she was sleeping, I inspected my daughter’s arms for scars – thankfully finding none.

Experts recommended empathetic communication, but my daughter wouldn’t talk to me (or a therapist). When I tried to convince her to meet up with friends, she became anxious to the point of tears. But couldn’t help thinking that if I could just get her to take care of herself, she would feel better. So, I nagged about her lifestyle – the hours she could have enjoyed outside, rather than scrolling through TikTok or watering a virtual garden. We fought. A lot.

Then, a few weeks ago, my daughter and I discovered “Stranger Things.” Or rather, I discovered the series: She had already binged the first three seasons on her laptop. As a rule, I stay away from stories that involve missing children, a horror too terrifying to contemplate. But she wanted to recap in anticipation of the fourth season, and asked me to watch with her.

With my husband back at work, she and I camped out on the couch, screening 25 episodes in a week. I won’t detail any spoilers, but the plot follows a group of kids from adolescence through their early teens as they fight off supernatural threats to their friends, family, and community. As the episodes progress, the actors’ clothing, makeup, and bodies change as dramatically as my daughter’s had over the past year.

Just like a portal to the “Upside Down” that these characters access, the show provided a space through which I could connect to my daughter’s world. Maybe it isn’t so bad, I thought, spending a few hours together each night, gripped by a drama to which we could both relate: a plague that overwhelms a community, with dark death at its heart. Sitting side-by-side, without looking directly at each other, we discussed everything from first kisses to world-threatening contagion that had a lot in common with coronavirus. And, after so many months of physical and emotional distance, the scary scenes gave me an excuse to hold her close.

It didn’t happen overnight, but that week was our turning point. I stopped worrying so much about my daughter in her dark room and she began opening the shades. She agreed to masked outdoor meetups with friends and shared her playlist in the car.

The new “Stranger Things” teaser just dropped and we can’t wait to watch season four together. Because, in the end, the heroes always win. And those are the kind of odds we need, right now.

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