If you haven’t watched the popular new Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” chances are your teen has. The show follows a group of high schoolers after a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, commits suicide and leaves tapes for the individuals she views as responsible for her act. School counselors have accused the show of glorifying suicide and self-harm while the show’s producers insist it was created to help struggling teens. Regardless of your opinions on the show itself, we can all agree that it’s important to talk to your child about the challenging topics of bullying, depression, and suicide. "13 Reasons Why" can be an effective avenue to having these discussions if your child has viewed the program. If not, now might be a good time to have these talks anyway.
The first message the show conveys is that teen bullying (and by-standing) is a problem that can sometimes have life and death consequences. This message appears to be the focus of the series and is one that needs to be heard by individuals on the bullying side of the problem.
First, talk to your child about what bullying actually is. Bullying can be physical or verbal abuse, excluding others from group activities, or using the internet and social media to attack and humiliate a victim. Bullying often isn’t as obvious as it is in television but needs to be identified and addressed.
If they see bullying and become “bystanders” they might want to help but not know how. Teach teens to take a stand against the bully, reach out to whoever is being bullied, or possibly get help from a teacher or other authority figure. Whatever they do, don’t stand by and laugh or support bullying.
Depression and Suicide
“13 Reasons Why” clearly addresses serious effects of bullying, however, an equally important message needs to aimed at the victim side of the issue. This includes teaching teens how to cope with stress and develop the emotional strength to cope with problems. This “resiliency” is akin to what we teach in Active Parenting about instilling courage and self-esteem. With a strong emotional core, teens can withstand a lot of the meanness that life sometimes throws at them. Helping victims of bullying understand that there are always better options to dealing with bullying than suicide(and homicide for that matter) is also essential.
Talk about what they can do if they are being bullied. Should they ask friends or counselors for help or can they communicate with the bully themselves. It’s important to know that it’s not their fault. Bullies attack weaknesses and exaggerate them. We all have weaknesses, so it’s important not to get hung up on what bullies say.
I personally hope the show goes further and joins what psychologists’ have called “denigrating the act of suicide without blaming the victim.” Teens need to understand that the act of suicide is not a noble death. It is an act of murder often motivated by a desire for revenge. “Won’t everyone feel terrible for how they treated me after I’m gone!” Parents, friends, bystanders and others often do feel bad…for a while. Then most of them heal and move on. Meanwhile the teen suicide is still dead.
Whether the show comes around to showing that side of suicide or not, parents can use it as a bridge to talk about how common depression and suicide is for teens. One in five teens experience depression, and suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds according to the CDC. Depression often grows out of discouragement of trying to cope with mounting pressure that pulls teens in different directions and can lead towards dangerous and harmful behavior including suicide. Stay aware of the signs of suicide and depression and seek help in coping with these challenges.
Talking to your children about bullying, depression, and suicide can be challenging but is essential. Even if you don’t believe your teen is struggling with these issues knowing what to do will help them confidently handle a situation if it arises. If we can learn anything from “13 Reasons Why” it’s that now is the time to have the talks because later may be too late.
One final suggestion. If your teen is doing well, why not talk to him or her about reaching out to others who may be struggling. Acts of kindness and inclusiveness from a peer can often be the lifeline another teen needs to get back on the boat. Plus, as any helping professional knows, helping someone else also helps the helper.
More information on these topics as well as other risks parents need to address with their children and teens can be found in the Active Parenting of Teens and Teens in Action courses.
Pioneer educator Dr. Michael Popkin is the founder of Active Parenting Publishers and is the author of many award winning video-based parenting education programs. An expert in his field, Dr. Popkin earned a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Georgia State University and has served as Director of Child and Family Services at an Atlanta hospital.