How to Improve Communication With Your Teen After 13 Reasons Why

Health Writer
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The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has sparked controversy with its plotline of a teenage girl who commits suicide after traumatic events in her life. The title comes from the 13 cassette tapes she leaves to “friends” who played a role in her death, according to her. The show raises the question, how well do you know your own teenager, and what they are currently experiencing? Here are some ways to improve your communication — and fully understand your role — with the teens in your life.

(Credit: Beth Dubber/Netflix)

How do you improve communication?

Listen. Experts say that adults may have to repeat questions or comments many times, because teens process information differently (slowly). If you choose to watch 13 Reasons Why with your teen, consider “best times” time for conversations — face-to-face conversations may be awkward at first. Walking, car pool moments, food prep time may help nudge conversations. For others, conversation during meals may be easier. Let your teen feel safe and supported no matter what they decide to share.

Can you really get teens to divulge their painful secrets?

Experts suggest laying the groundwork for communication when children are young. If you and your teen are alienated, then consider watching the episodes by yourself first. It may help you to find a way to connect. Remember that even the most popular teens may be victims of bullying. Try to find common ground with your teen and then find the right moments to ask the more probing questions. Be open and non-judgmental. Make the time daily to simply talk about anything. Sometimes a hug is enough.

When to observe, when to ask questions?

Is your teen obsessed with video-gaming? Does your teen have a social circle? Is your teen engaged with school, a sport, a passion? Have you asked your teen if they feel “well matched” to school? Are you and your teen having meaningful conversations? Does your teen seem overly stressed? Are any of your teen’s relationships dangerous? Are you seeing changes in your teen’s personality that worry you? Keep trying to engage with your teen but recognize when you may need outside support and help.

When kids do reach out – don't shut them down

Selena Gomez, executive producer of the series, offered her defense of the Netflix project, calling it, “A beautifully tragic, complicated story… not an easy subject to talk about.” When teens do reach out or offer their take on problems at home or in school, it’s important to hear them and have the difficult conversations. Allow kids to be honest and show that you are invested by taking them seriously.

What should you look out for to know when to intervene?

Stressors for teens can include: disciplinary problems (at home, in school); interpersonal losses; family violence; sexual orientation confusion; physical or sexual abuse; being a victim of bullying; isolation from school cliques due to physical or emotional “awkwardness.” Parents need to recognize when they need outside help to help their kids.

Episode 6: Hannah’s mother asks, ‘How did I not know?’

Recognizing potential signs of increasing depression and suicidal ideation is crucial. Warning signs include: Any mention of dying, verbal or physical signs that indicate the teen is not coping with a sudden loss, loss of interest in friends or activities they used to really enjoy, signs of self-harm (cutting, extreme dieting), verbalization that he or she has lost hope.

What changes should you watch out for?

Changes in your teen can be cause for concern too. Those changes can include in personality (sad, withdrawn, irritable, quick to anger, tired, apathetic, reclusive), in behavior (lack of focus or inability to concentrate on school, work, routine tasks), and in habits (school performance, eating, sleep).

What can adults do?

Adults are tasked to help teens to think about their choices in basic ways and to problem solve alone and with support. Teens need clear decision-making rules and the means to guard their own safety. That falls on parents and schools.

For parents, denial is not an option

Whether to allow teens to view 13 Reasons Why should be weighed carefully; parents and anyone who works with teens would certainly benefit. It challenges the viewer to face the realities of what may be going on in a teen’s life. The issue of teen bullying, isolation, depression, and suicide has to be faced head on.

What’s the role of the principal, teachers, coaches, counselors, and school staff?

There was a sense in 13 Reasons Why that parents and school staff were clueless or in denial. Though parents are primarily tasked with finding out if their teen is depressed, suicidal, or being bullied, teachers and school counselors play an important role too. If a teen is avoiding school, is becoming increasingly withdrawn or emotional, showing a (negative) change or self-destructive behaviors, they should recognize these warning signs and try to connect with the student as first responders.

More tools and resources

One group of teens in Florida started a lunch club so no one eats alone. Efforts like this can help teens who “are different” to feel included and less isolated. [The Teen Screen can help to identify at-risk kids, but some psychologists worry that it can over-diagnose, so screening should be done by an adolescent specialist.