13 Questions for Parents to Consider About 13 Reasons Why

Health Writer
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The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has gone viral. The story follows Hannah Baker, a teen who takes her own life after a series of traumatic events. She leaves 13 audio tapes to “friends” who played a role in her ultimate decision (from her perspective). The show is facing criticism from people who worry that it glamorizes teen suicide and may prompt vulnerable teens to irrevocable actions.

(Credit: Beth Dubber/Netflix)

Why should you be concerned?

As a parent, you should prepare yourself for talking to your child about 13 Reasons Why by addressing these following questions.

Would you want to be a teen again?

Watching the first several episodes, I was reminded of how hard it is to be a teen and also to raise a teen. Both situations are fraught with pressure. Still, as adults, most of us have seasoned coping skills, and we know how to ask for expert help. But asking for help can be tough for teens, no matter how great their pain. So how should we talk about this? What can we, as parents and teachers, do?

Are you facing the facts?

Rates of suicide among all age groups, including teens, have been on an upswing since the late 1990s. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens ages 10-14, and the second leading cause of death among people 15- 24 years old. In 2014, 1,668 youth ages 13-18 committed suicide. Among girls, the suicide rate, though still low, has nearly tripled from 50 in 1999 to 150 in 2014.

What shouldn’t you do?

There are now more effective treatments for mental health, but we need to identify at-risk teens and they need better access to care. What should you not do? Don’t assume your teen is coping.

Is the TV series helpful or dangerous?

Many mental health experts are recommending that teens not watch 13 Reasons Why. Paris Jackson, Michael Jackson’s daughter, who tried to commit suicide in 2013, has called the show “extremely triggering” for young people who are “in a dark place.” She suggests that teens “watch the show with caution… if you think you can handle it.”

What are others saying about the show?

Are you making time to listen? Are you really listening?

In episode one, a dad asks his son, “How are you doing?” The son says, “I’m fine.” The father shakes his head knowingly (he sees his son is not fine) but doesn’t follow up with support. When it comes to teens, the risk of suicide can be a convergence of psychological, environmental, and social factors. Teens often hide their difficulties and parents tip toe around direct conversations. Talk to them about what they like and then try to ask specific questions.

Do you understand the stress that your child is facing?

(Episode 7) “When you’re that kind of lonely, you reach for anything…” Teens can feel incredibly isolated. Knowing the stressors that teen’s face can help parents recognize when their teen is at risk for depression or suicide.

Do you know their friends or boyfriends/girlfriends?

Peer groups and friendships (including BFFs, or “best friends forever”) dominate teen life. Friendships become the most important thing in life and can interfere with parent-teen relationships. Friendships can be strong one day and gone the next. Many teens will feel deep despair, especially if they are “out of the clique.” If the pairing ended poorly, bullying is common, and social media allows retaliatory exaggerations, lies, and sharing of confidential information and private photos.

What shouldn’t you do if your teen loses friends?

Don’t lecture — let your kid talk when he or she is ready. Back to School offers toolkits for parents, teens, and school staff to help deal with these and other common teen issues.

Do you understand why your teen is taking risks?

13 Reasons Why shows a number of risk-taking situations. It’s clear that in some of the featured peer groups, the more risk-taking, the higher regard the group has for the individual. Adolescent risk-taking can escalate because of peer group influences, as that type of behavior is often rewarded or valued by teens. A New York Times column, Teenagers Do Dumb Things, but There Are Ways to Limit Recklessness, highlights these situations and offers insights for parents.

Do kids really understand their actions?

In the series, a teen says, “I wish there was a button you could push to fast forward through all of the [expletive].” Many of the teens depicted literally throw Hannah “under the bus.” One girl sacrifices their (platonic) friendship because she can’t deal with being gay or being outed. That particular act against Hannah has devastating consequences. Expert Lawrence Steinberg, Ph.D., shows that kids make bad decisions because impulses override controls.

Where can you find more info?

Stop A Suicide Today is a website that offers information on warning signs and tips for parents and teens. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) provides immediate assistance and referrals.