How to Talk to Your Teen After Watching "13 Reasons Why"

As tough as it was for me to finish all 13 episodes of the controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” released last spring, my 20- and 23-year-old daughters told me that as a parent educator who works with parents of teenagers, I had no choice.

My first thought while watching the series? Thank goodness I’m done parenting high schoolers! Kids grow up so fast today, and they confront issues that are much more intense and complicated than I handled growing up in the previous millennium.

My second thought? As tough as it is to watch sexual assault, underage drinking, drug abuse, cyberbullying, sexting and drunk driving (not to mention a very graphic suicide scene) played out in an American high school, how much tougher must it be for teens to confront these situations in real life? The scenarios graphically, though incompletely, depicted in the series are happening throughout our country, and adolescents need adults to help them process topics that their brains are not yet fully developed to handle.

Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. Each day in the U.S., an average of 5,240 students in grades 7-12 attempt suicide. Rather than seeking help for what is typically a short-term problem, teens are choosing the ultimate long-term solution.

The executive producers (one of whom is actress and singer Selena Gomez, who has openly discussed her own battle with depression) say they intended to generate discussion of teen suicide and other topics.

After watching the series, I asked my girls what they found to be realistic or unrealistic based on their high school experiences. We discussed our family’s mental health history; the potential suicide-inducing side effects of some medications; the early signs of depression and anxiety; who is in their “village” – the three people they could call in the middle of the night if they needed to talk; and how to locate professional help if needed. We discussed what it means to truly be a friend and a responsible digital citizen. They may be out of high school, but based on current suicide data, they aren’t out of the woods yet.

The Parent Encouragement Program, a family education organization in Kensington, Maryland, encourages parents to begin age-appropriate conversations about sensitive subjects early in their children’s lives and continue them into the teen years and beyond. It is never too late to get started. PEP offers these helpful tips for initiating the dialogue and keeping it going:

  1. Don’t wait to initiate sensitive conversations until you have all the answers. Our teens simply need to know they have someone they can trust who will listen. It’s usually more important to know what questions to ask rather than what answers to give. It can be encouraging for kids to learn that adults don’t have all the answers, so they shouldn’t be expected to either.

  2. Remember we each have two ears and one mouth, so try to listen twice as much as you talk. Listen to understand rather than to reply, and pause after they talk rather than responding immediately.

  3. Practice your poker face. Teens will test us by saying something shocking, so try to avoid judgment, criticism or lecturing, while keeping your body language relaxed and open.

  4. Use open-ended questions starting with “How?” or “What?” These questions usually require more than one-word answers, and do not put teens on the defensive, which can happen when our questions start with “Why?”

  5. Engage in conversations while participating in a parallel activity such as driving, cooking or walking outdoors. Talking face to face can feel intimidating to teens.

  6. Initiate conversations late at night when teens are often more talkative. You may be less so, and therefore more likely to listen. Lie on their bed beside them and see what happens.

  7. Acknowledge that these are difficult topics for you to consider. Start off by sharing a tough situation you faced as a teen or lead off with a light-hearted comment such as “I’m probably the last person you want to discuss these things with, but as your parent, it’s my job and how I earn my paycheck.”

  8. Keep their confidence by not sharing what your teen tells you.

  9. I wouldn’t return to my high school days for a million dollars – not even to the considerably tamer environment of yesteryear. I empathize with parents, but my heart aches for our teens who are navigating an amazingly complicated adolescent world. They need us to give them every reason to believe they can count on us.

Additional resources:

  • “How to Talk so Teens Will Listen and Listen so Teens Will Talk” by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish
  • “How to Say It to Teens: Talking about the Most Important Topics of Their Lives” by Richard Heyman
  • “What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know: Facing Today’s Challenges with Wisdom and Heart” by Debra W. Haffner