Talking to Your Kids about “13 Reasons Why”
May 24, 2017 02:30PM
As one of Pediatric Associates of the Northwest’s behavioral health providers, it is my duty to inform you that May is mental health awareness month! In the spirit of highlighting mental health issues, and specifically mental health issues in children and teenagers, I want to take this opportunity to talk about a show that has been in the news recently, though not necessarily for its laudable exploration of mental illness. If you’ve been watching the news or visited parenting websites recently, you’ve probably noticed that there has been a lot of talk about a show that Netflix called 13 Reasons Why. If you haven’t heard about it, the show focuses on a teenager named Hannah who commits suicide and makes 13 audiotapes that reveal the incidents leading up to her death, which she leaves for the people she identifies as responsible for her suicide.
The show and its highly controversial content has created a national dialogue about both teen suicide and mental health, though most of the dialogue has centered around the appropriateness of the show for vulnerable teens and its glamorization of suicide. Some schools have sent home letters warning parents about the show, and there are dozens of news articles and blog posts outlining why the show’s content is inappropriate. Some are going so far as to recommend that Netflix remove the show from its site. I’m here to join the chorus of concerned voices that have emerged regarding the possible negative impact the content of the show might have on young, vulnerable minds, but also to provide you, as parents, with a guide for how to talk to your children who have already seen the show about what they watched. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but you can use what they saw as an opportunity to talk about teen suicide and discuss coping skills for getting through difficult times.
For me, 13 Reasons Why has turned out to be a valuable tool for discussing extremely difficult topics that kids sometimes have a hard time opening up about: suicide, bullying, rape, sexism, peer pressure, loneliness, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. It has allowed me to start a dialogue with some of my patients that would not have happened otherwise. I’ve also been hearted by hearing some very insightful young teens discuss why Hannah’s suicide wasn’t necessary, the things she could have done differently when she first began to experience the despair she painstakingly discusses throughout the show, and where she went wrong in her thinking (something psychologists call cognitive distortions or thought traps). They have discussed how the show helped remind them of the importance to be kind to others because you never know what someone is going through at any given moment. They are able to identify where the show itself went wrong in portraying the adults in her life as uncaring or dismissive, or that Hannah wasn’t really alone and there were other options for her to get help. I am thankful to the makers of the show for these discussions, and it’s in those conversations that I think its meaning and intent have been realized.
HOWEVER, these kids are somewhat of an exception, because they’re already engaged in therapy and they know that there are people in their lives that will listen to them, take their problems seriously, and do what they can to help.
The people I’m most worried about watching this show are the early adolescents. And anecdotally, in the conversations I’ve had with several teens spanning the middle school/high school spectrum, it’s the middle schoolers who are particularly intrigued with the show and enamored with its characters. These are the ones who are only just beginning to separate fantasy from reality. Let’s not forget, most middle schoolers only just stopped believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy a couple of years prior. These are the ones who are more likely to believe a show that tells them that loneliness and trauma are justifications for suicide. That they need to “make their own justice,” as the show outlines rather explicitly and suicide is a way to be heard by those who have wronged them. I worry about the ones who will watch an incredibly graphic scene of a girl slitting her wrists in a bathtub and might model this behavior in an impulsive moment when they too are overcome by emotion. Studies have shown that suicide can be contagious, and copycat behaviors are a real concern with these young teens who watch the show. I’m especially worried that these middle school viewers will see what Hannah endures in the show, how the adults in her life were not helpers, and believe that if they reach out to the adults in their lives for help, they will be met with a shrug and a platitude. Those are the kids who should not be watching this show. But I fear those are exactly the kids who find this show so appealing.
The makers of this show, with their adult brains and sensibilities, felt that they were doing a good thing, albeit misguidedly. And as adults, we can watch the show and see it for what it is, a dramatic and compelling cautionary tale. But for these pre-teens and teenagers, whose brains have not yet developed to the point of understanding the world is not black and white and that suffering is temporal in nature, they aren’t necessarily picking up the intended message of the show. Rather, they see a girl who is lonely and who doesn’t feel she fits in, who experiences bullying, shame, guilt, and trauma, and who does not cope well. They also see a boy who was in love with her but it took her suicide for him to admit it (talk about romanticizing). Rather than seeking help and turning to the people who showed her over and over again that they loved her, she decided that she was ultimately alone and the only way to feel better was to stop feeling anything at all.
Here are the real truths about suicide that I wish the show had made crystal clear:
- That suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
- That suicide doesn’t end suffering, it simply passes it on to others.
- That there is always another way. No matter how much you’re suffering, how lonely you feel, or how hopeless the future seems, there are people who will listen. There are people who can help.
Chances are, if you have a child over the age of 11 and they have access to Netflix, they have watched this show. If your child hasn’t watched the show yet and they’re under the age of 17, I would recommend you restrict them from doing so. But again, there are some great conversations that can come from a young person watching 13 Reasons Why, so fear not if your child has watched it. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking my patients in order to open a dialogue about the important themes that the show presents. So if your child has watched it, talk with him or her about it. Open your own dialogue about mental health.
What did you think about 13 Reasons Why?
What did you learn from it?
What did you like? What didn’t you like?
Did anything that went on with the different characters in the show feel familiar? Are any of the issues you saw things you deal with at school or with friends?
What reasons did Hannah give for ending her life? Why do you think she made such a permanent decision?
Is there anything Hannah could have done differently throughout the course of the show that might have changed the outcome?
Are there times when Hannah didn’t see a situation clearly? Did you notice any instances when there may have been another side of the story she wasn’t aware of? How did her misperception impact her feelings about the situation and/or future situations she found herself in?
Hannah said several times during the show that she felt alone and that no one truly saw her. Do you think that’s true? Why/why not?
Do you think it’s fair that Hannah left those 13 people with tapes explaining why they were responsible for her death? How do you think knowing this information after her death and not being able to do anything about it will impact them throughout their lives?
Hannah’s parents seemed to be caring people who loved Hannah very much. Why do you think Hannah chose not to reach out to her mom or dad to tell them how she was feeling or what she was going through? Are there times when you keep things from me because you’re afraid of how I’ll react?
Hannah’s mom found her in the bathtub after she had died. How do you think seeing that will affect her mom for the rest of her life?
How do you think people would respond to you if you reached out to them for help? What would you do if you didn’t get the response you were hoping for?
If your child talks about feeling lonely, hopeless, or expresses thoughts of suicide, please call your child’s pediatrician or visit the resources below. At Pediatric Associates of the Northwest, we have four behavioral health providers who are available to provide support and treatment.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Youth Suicide Warning Signs
Oregon Youth Line
National Association of Mental Illness
To see how others are weighing in on the subject locally and nationally, visit: