Fancy a crash course in modern teen life? Well look no further than the recent remake of Australia’s Heartbreak High on Netflix. What you get is a high octane view into the turbulent life of high school students, with perhaps a little more drama than in reality… or then again, maybe not?! Other than the binge-worthy series being a bit of fun to watch, there are actually seemingly endless things we can learn from the show in terms of what teens are dealing with and how we can support them. So without further ado, here’s 9 super important things HH highlights about life as a teenager right now.
1. You never know what’s going on for someone else
All throughout the series, there’s a lot of stuff going on for each of the characters. Which of course means there’s a lot that they don’t know about what’s happening for each other, which leads to fall outs, cancel culture, and of course, lots of drama! We’re living in a brutal world that promotes black and white thinking right now, when most of that goes on is very much in the grey. We see that in everything from politics to social media, and our teens are lapping it up. Help them to try and remember the grey of life in order to temper judgement and keep friendships steady. Be compassionate, curious and ask questions.
2. Check in
Following on from above, there’s a lot happening in a teen’s world. Remind them that if they notice someone behaving really out of character, check in with them! The two main characters – best friends Amerie and Harper – know each other inside out. When Harper has a radical shift in appearance and behaviour, Amerie is too focused on the whirlwind of mess going on in her life to really reach out and check in on her friend. Turns out Harper has been through some pretty dark stuff, which Amerie feels dreadful about when she finally understands by the end of the first season. Whilst in this case we wouldn’t have a TV show without it, in real life we can do without the hurt! Never be afraid to ask if someone is ok.
3. Learn about others
HH champions inclusion. Actor Chloe Hayden who plays Quinni is the second autistic person IN THE WORLD to play an autistic character. Chloe nailed it of course, and she now has a huge fanbase of people who feel seen and celebrated (Chloe has since won several awards in Australia for her work as an activist and actor). As her character’s interaction with others demonstrates, there is a lot of stuff that we need to catch up on to be supportive of those with neurodiversity. Chloe’s book “Different, Not Less” is a great place to start.
On another point, sexuality and gender diversity is explored through several characters on the show. For the most part, the students on HH treat gender diversity and sexuality as just part of the furniture – perhaps not quite a full reflection of life for our teens in the real world, but much more so than when parents were at school. Take note, though: for a number of kids right now, the pressure to “choose” and “define” themselves is overwhelming and confusing. Puberty can mean mixed emotions, crushes on both sexes, and an ever-wavering sense of identity, so encouraging acceptance and reminding them that you are here to talk when things get confusing is really really important.
On a darker note, one of the most disturbing aspects of the show is the institutionalised racism Malakai is subjected to, and how brutal it is for his sense of self worth and acceptance. Thankfully, another indigenous pair in the programme recognise his spiral and get him back to the land to reconnect. HH demonstrates how unjust the world can be for those without certain privileges. Keep learning, and keep aiming to do better.
4. Parents are important!
I love the relationship between Amerie and her mum. Super loving without being over the top (mum taking Amerie out for a catch up after she’s in major trouble at school and just sitting and listening), and also super normal (Amerie being grounded… and then sneaking out anyway). Amerie’s mum is a champion. She’s not a perfect parent, and Amerie isn’t a perfect kid, but she is there for her child and holds the boundaries to keep her daughter safe. Likewise, Darren’s relationship with his dad goes from pretty poor to genuine connection and support. Again, not a perfect relationship, but so cool seeing how vulnerability and communicating can completely alter a teen’s world. On the other hand, there’s Dusty’s dad. The cool one who lets his son have raging parties where anything and everything is going down. Yeah, don’t be Dusty’s dad. Dusty’s dad isn’t actually cool at all.
5. Expression is part of being a teen
One of the first things you might notice about HH is how all the kids have such individual senses of style! Not exactly real life, but it demonstrates the importance of self expression for teens. Not every kid wants to dress wild, but self expression may come out in other ways such as choices of music, hobbies, trying on different expressions, hair colour or cuts, jewellery… you name it! Be ok with allowing experimentation of self expression. It’s part of discovering yourself! (it also doesn’t necessarily “mean” anything!). On that point, teaching your child to be accepting of others’ self expression is important too. You never know, it might help them feel comfortable to express themselves better.
6. Social acceptance is everything
This one is something we all know, but the show really highlights how it can impact a teen’s decision making. Character Ca$h gets into some pretty uncharacteristic situations with his group of sketchy friends, but leaving the pack seems far worse than committing the crimes they do. Whilst we don’t want teens making those kinds of decisions, it is part of the evolution of their identity and brain that has them look to their peers before looking to their parents. They are learning that rejection = death (which back in the day, it did! If you were rejected from the tribe, you’d most likely perish)… and they behave like that sometimes too! Bear this in mind when your teen is adrift on the sea of friendship woe.
7. They will do dumb stuff…
… but don’t promote it. There’s a line between allowing exploration and enabling poor decision making (eg allowing drug consumption. Watch this short clip from Nathan Wallis about the impact on the teen brain from consumption of marajuana). The best way forward in any case is to cultivate a trusting relationship so you can help them navigate it (like Amerie’s mum), but as previously mentioned, please, don’t be the cool parent like Dusty’s dad. Reestablishing boundaries from cool parent status is like pushing sh*t up a hill.
8. Consent is cool
Freaking loved seeing Amerie and Malakai explicitly asking for consent from one another on HH. Loved it. There’s more and more education popping up around consent, but we still have a long way to go. As I’ve talked about here here (podcast) and here (blog), teens have such easy access to pornography that it has become a part of life growing up now, even if they aren’t personally consumers of it. One of the things that means is that consent is pretty absent, and so we need to actually teach them about it. Talk about this with them! Please – it’s a vital lesson to learn from any person’s perspective, no matter their gender or sexuality.
9. Teens are powerful
My favourite. Teens ARE powerful. With a tonne of passion and energy to burn, teens can make things happen. The difference between using that power for good (like campaigning for the wrongful dismissal of a beloved school teacher – pretty much the whole cast of students) and for not so good (standing up in front of the school and tearing pieces off another person – Harper… oops) is how well adjusted and supported (and inspired) the kid is. Nurture their passions. Take interest if they have strong opinions. Sort of like how mentoring works, learning to be a good ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘preacher teacher’ nourishes empowerment and connection to something bigger. Sounds powerful to me.
If you’ve seen Heartbreak High, you’ll know a lot of it is hyped up (hello TV), but the storylines and characters are fairly accurate for a lot of our kids. One pretty big difference is that teens aren’t necessarily so open about what’s going on for them. Instead it plays out pretty quickly over the series and of course resolves itself by the end.
In real life, strong support networks help kids to speak up and are vital for good mental health. It’s easy to think that our teens live in a scary world these days, but really it’s the same stuff you went through, just amplified through the speed of our existence these days and our hyperconnectivity. Hopefully Heartbreak High provides a little (dramatic!) insight and inspiration on how to best show up for your teen.
About the author.