If you are the parent of a child ages 11-18, I am sure that you have become aware of the controversial Netflix series, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young-adult bestseller. It is about a high school student, Hannah Baker, who kills herself and leaves behind 13 audiotapes detailing the events that led to her death, including sexual assault, substance abuse and bullying. These 13 tapes are sent to 13 people who she says contributed to her decision to commit suicide.
The controversy lies in what many feel is the irresponsible messaging to teens (it is rated TV-MA meaning the content may not be suitable for audiences under 17). Mental health professionals believe that it glorifies suicide possibly making teens who are contemplating suicide to imagine what life is like for those they leave behind as well as potentially leading to copycat behaviors. One very important point that the show never articulates is that most children who die by suicide have mental health illness, such as depression, that is treatable. Also the lack of responsible adults in the show is unnerving and unrealistic. It does not show teens that there are trusted adults, whether parents, other family members, teachers, and/or school counselors that can help. It has been hinted that the possible second season will bring in the adults’ point of view since it is so gravely lacking in the first 13 episodes.
What can we do to help our children who are watching this series? Once again, communication is key. If your child is watching “13 Reasons Why,” watch it with them and discuss it. Ask them specific questions about how certain scenes made them feel. Discuss with them the power of words and how cyberbullying and bullying feels to them and to others. Help them to understand that the show does not depict responsible adults and that there are people that can help. Also, how you understand their feelings and are willing to listen and help find a solution. If you are comfortable with your child watching the show be ready to talk to them about sexual assault. This is not a small, insignificant conversation to have. It must be well thought out and discussed. If you are struggling to know how to begin any of these conversations with your child, Common Sense Media outlines the following conversation starters after watching “13 Reasons Why” which can be very helpful:
- *Ask: Have you witnessed or experienced cyberbullyingor more traditional bullying? What different forms can bullying take? What can you do to fight it?
- *Do you think 13 Reasons Why romanticizes suicide, or does it provide an important outlet and opportunities for discussion? Or both?
*Families can talk about the way suicide is addressed on this series. When is it important to talk about mental health, especially if you’re worried about a friend or family member? What resources are available to help both kids and adults?
*What do you think about Hannah’s choices? Was it right for her to blame others for her suicide? What are some healthy ways to cope when relationships, family, and school get overwhelming?
- *Sexual assault, specifically the rape of a main character, plays a large role in this series. Families can talk about resources available to teens; the Crisis Text Line is an excellent way for phone-shy teens to reach out in times of need.
I feel that it is important to note that the National Association of School Psychologists “has advised teenagers who have had suicidal thoughts to avoid the series entirely. They recommend that any teenager should watch with a parent who can make it clear that suicide is not a solution to problems.”
Our children’s lives are incredibly complicated and they do not have the benefit of personal experience or the ability to process the issues that they are confronted with everyday. We have to be present and thoughtful in our conversations with them so they can gain an understanding of how to deal with these situations now as well as continue to ask questions and grow with a sense of trusted connection to others, strength and empathy.
—Mary & Claire
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