If you are worried about your kid watching the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, you’re right to be. There are disturbingly graphic depictions of violence, rape and suicide. At the show’s fictional Liberty High School, kids deal with bullying, sexual harassment and assault, drugs and alcohol, depression, and suicidal feelings all under the noses of clueless and incompetent parents, teachers and school counselors. In this way, the show sends the message to its teenage audience that adults are of no help with big adolescent problems. To make matters even worse, the show itself offers no resources to assist members of its audience who might be struggling with these issues.
The creators of the series have one thing right, however. Suicide and bullying are serious problems for adolescents. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens, and a recent study found that 35% of the teenagers in its sample had been the victims of bullying. Saddest of all is that most of the kids who experience bullying and/or suicidal impulses will never tell their parents about their struggles.
It’s pretty scary stuff. I’ve written this guide to help you talk with your child about 13 Reasons Why. Here are six tips to have in mind as you start your conversation.
1. Keep it brief.
Talking about weighty topics is stressful for kids. Instead of having a single, long conversation of 30 minutes or an hour where you try to cover absolutely everything you want to find out, consider having four or five brief conversations of five minutes or less. It’s better to keep a conversation brief and end on a good note, than to talk too long and have your child tune you out. It’s very important to read your audience. If your child seems uncomfortable or resistant, stop talking. Try again in a day or two. Car rides are great times to casually ask a question or two about the show.
2. Focus on listening.
Active listening, rather than talking, is the best way to learn what your child is thinking, feeling and experiencing. Teaching, advising, making points and other forms of talking turn kids off. When your child opens up, even if it’s just a little bit, your child wants to be accepted and validated, not judged or criticized. Your child will be more likely to talk with you now and in the future if he or she believes you will really listen. (For a great guide to listening to teenagers see the classic book How to Talk so Teens Will Listen by Faber and Mazlish.)
4. Don’t overreact.
When we invite kids to open up to us, their first reaction is often to test how serious our commitment is to listening. They might start by telling us something provocative to see if we’ll overreact. Intense parental reactions shut kids down and make them less likely to talk.
Although you might feel very strongly about what you are hearing, it’s important to stay calm and listen. If we overreact to these smaller tests, then our children won’t turn to us when they need help with really big things.
If your child does tell you something worrisome about drug and alcohol use, bullying, or suicidal feelings, eventually you will need to take action to help your child, but it’s still important to not be reactive. Listen to what your child has to say. Later contact your pediatrician or a qualified psychologist (referral resources are listed below) to make a thoughtful plan of action. If your child is imminently at risk of hurting him/herself or anyone else, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
5. Ask low key questions.
Kids are sensitive to feeling put on the spot. Here are some low stress questions you might ask your child about 13 Reasons Why. Remember, you aren’t trying to get all of these asked in one conversation. It might even be one question per conversation. Here are some questions you might ask:
“Have you seen 13 Reasons Why?”
If your child has seen it, I highly recommend that you watch the show. It will really help with your conversation.
“What was your experience watching the show?”
If you don’t hear anything about the upsetting aspects of the show, you might ask: “I found it pretty upsetting to watch at some points. Did you?
“Is there stuff like that going on at your school?”
Again, if you don’t get much of a response, I’d ask specifically about bullying, drinking, sexual harassment, and suicide.
“Have you seen or heard about any of the things from the show like drinking and drug use
… guys pushing themselves on girls sexually
… kids expressing suicidal feelings?”
“Have any of these things happened to you?”
We need to hear if our child is being bullied, sexually harassed, feeling suicidal, or in situations where they feel uncomfortable with what other kids are doing. Unlike when they were little, teenagers spend most of their time outside of our supervision. They only way we can know what they are doing is for them to tell us.
“Are there adults you feel safe turning to?”
In the show, Hannah Baker, the girl who commits suicide, turned to the school counselor and (spoiler alert) he handled things terribly. I’d refer to this specifically.
“Hannah Baker tried to get help from Mr. Porter, the school counselor, but he was of no help. Do you know your school counselor? What do you think of him/her.”
I’d also say, “I hope if you ever need help you will turn to me.”
If your child hasn’t seen the show, you could ask follow-up questions like:
“Have your friends watched it?”
“Do you want to see it?”
“I hear it can be upsetting to watch, but if you want to watch it, do you want to watch it together?”
6. Give your child resources to reach out to.
We all hope that our child will turn to us if they are in trouble, but we can never be sure. It’s important, therefore, to give our child other resources. Hopefully we’ve heard about the adults our child trusts. If our child doesn’t know his or her school counselor, it would be a good idea to give the counselor’s name and contact information as someone to reach out to.
Additionally, let your child know about the Crisis Text Line. It’s a free 24/7 crisis line that kids can contact by texting “talk” to 741741. The text puts them in touch with a trained crisis counselor. The Crisis Text Line is based on the idea that it’s much easier for teens to seek help by text than by calling. Here’s a link to their website: www.crisistextline.org.
Another resource is the traditional suicide prevention line www.suicideprevention.org (800-273-8255).
If you have questions or concerns, it’s a good idea to consult with a professional. The American Psychological Association has a website where you can search for qualified psychologists in your area: locator.apa.org.
6. Make the following statement.
Finally, developmental psychologist, James Garbarino, suggests that all parents should regularly communicate the following message to their children:
“No matter what you feel, no matter what you have done, no matter what has been done to you, I will never stop loving you.”
Children’s greatest fear is that they will lose their parents’ love. That fear is one of the biggest obstacles to them letting parents know about the difficult things that they’ve felt, done, or had done to them. It’s important to regularly reassure your children that you will love them no matter what.
I hope my suggestions help you in your conversations with your child about 13 Reasons Why. It is my wish that you will continue to deepen your trust and communication with your child. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.