I hadn’t planned on watching the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” about a teenage girl who kills herself and leaves behind tapes for all the people who wronged her. But when I overheard my 10-year-old son and his friend talking about it, I figured I better check it out. He hadn’t seen it (and won’t for several years) but I was surprised he even knew about a show intended for much older kids, with heavy plot lines about suicide, rape, bullying, and drug and alcohol abuse.
As I watched the show from the perspective of a parent who has already been through the trying teen years with my oldest child, what bothered me most is how these parents had no idea what was going on with their kids. Throughout the 13 episodes, we see various parents, mostly well-intentioned, loving, caring — and completely clueless parents — try to reach their teenagers who are going through pain they can’t imagine.
Clay’s mom goes to her sensitive and struggling son’s room to again try to get him to open up. He assures her he’s fine.
“You’re not fine. You haven’t been for a while.”
I don’t want to talk about it,” he says.
“You have to tell me what’s going on,” she continues.
He approaches her, and she looks at him hopefully.
“You can’t help me, Mom,” he says, closing the door on her.
I’ve read a lot of articles offering advice about how parents should talk to their kids about “13 Reasons” (and many that call the show irresponsible and argue it should not even air). Yes, this fictional show could be a springboard for difficult conversations. But what about our actual kids? How do we make sure we know what our kids are dealing with IRL?
Clay’s parents try different approaches. His perky mom decides to start a daily family breakfast, since they rarely see each other for dinner. He’s not really into it, but his parents keep trying. As he gobbles a few bites one morning, his mom says she has something to discuss with him. He immediately jumps from the table, grabs his backpack and heads out the door.
Another heart-breaking scene takes place on the steps of Clay’s house, as his dad makes an effort, telling him how hard high school was for him. What helped him, was had things to hang onto.
“Do you have something? Does anything bring you joy, or just relief? Your mom and I would feel so much better if you had something.”
There are other examples. The troubled Jessica hides vodka under her covers to numb her pain, but when her dad comes to her door to say goodnight, she tells him she’s fine. (That word again!)
And Hannah’s devastated parents saw no signs their daughter was planning to take her own life. She didn’t tell them about anything she’d been going through before she slit her wrists (be forewarned parents: this is a stomach-turning, gruesomely realistic scene). And they’re left sifting through her things, searching for any clues that she was not at all fine.
So what are we parents to do prevent the tragedies these characters suffer? Experts offer some guidance to encourage your teens to come to you with their problems.
Understand that times have changed
“Kids these days are having an experience of the world that we could not ever imagine. They know so much more than we ever did at their ages,” says parenting expert Amy Lang, who has been working with families for 25 years. “And just like every other teen since the beginning of time, they think they know it all have it all down.”
Remember, they are figuring out who they are, and part of that means separating themselves from their parents. Dr. Gregory Jantz, a mental health expert and author several books about adolescence including “When the Teenager Becomes a Stranger in Your House,” says two main questions drive kids through middle school and high school: “Who am I?” And “Where do I belong?”
Kids compare themselves to others, feel inferior, and wonder if they are pretty enough, cool enough, good enough. Jantz, says teenage depression and anxiety are at an all-time high, some of which he attributes to the prevalence of technology and social media.
“There’s more coming at them than ever before,” Jantz says. “The pressures are different, and there are more of them.”
Jantz, who runs a mental health facility outside Seattle, encourages parents to be alert and vigilant, but not to push. Teenagers become experts at telling adults what they think we want to hear, and sometimes we’re so afraid of butting in, we accept what they say without question or demand answers they’re not ready to give.
“When we’re talking to our kids, it’s important to allow time and space,” he said. “We want to build that bridge of trust. If we are over-forcing or over-demanding or over- shaming, we can lose that trust.”
Lang says you can write a letter, or tell your child know that you suspect something is going on. Tell them while you respect their privacy, it’s a good idea for them to let someone know what’s up and then give them options: you, another trusted adult, their medical care provider, the school counselor or a therapist.
“It’s helpful to share stories about when you were their age and troubled about someone, and how you totally messed it all up because you thought you could handle it and you really could not,” Lang says.
Skip the judgment
Lang says parents need to listen to teens, and attempt to see their point of view, and respond without judgment. The most important thing parents can do is not freak out over little stuff.
“If you get all crazy-pants when you see one of their friends dressed like Gothic Nightmare or a trollop and talk about how awful they look and are super judgmental about something like this, you pretty much tell your kid that you can’t handle, well, much of anything,” she warns. “Why on earth would they tell you that they think they are gay or had sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend or are depressed or sad or whatever, if you can’t even handle something as superficial as a teenager’s clothing choice?”
Watch for warning signs
Jantz said there are warning signs that can be subtle or obvious: academic struggle, isolation, choosing not to be part of the peer group they used to be with, spending all their time in their rooms, sleeping too much or not enough, escaping into technology.
Sometimes, even the most vigilant parents don’t know how bad it is until their family is dealing with an eating disorder, substance abuse, early pregnancy, or self-harm.
“These are high stakes so, as a parent, I’d rather look ridiculous and be considered as overacting than be wrong and left wondering why I didn’t do something sooner,” Jantz says.
Be patient. And be there.
Above all, Jantz said, keep the relationship going.
“Ultimately when they want to talk or they need something, we want to have mom or dad in the picture and offering a safe place for them.”
“Bottom line, show up for your kids like you would want your BFF to show up for you in your daily life,” Lang adds. “This doesn’t mean you abdicate your throne as their parent, it means you change your behavior to mimic that of a close friend. This is the place where connection happens. And it needs to happen daily for their trust in you to increase.”
All this helps ensure that when your kids are looking for someone to talk to, they will choose you.
“Often, they will pick you because they need to get it off their chest and you are handy,” Lang says. “You may need to wait a bit, but they will usually get there.”
Some of the characters on the show eventually do get there. At the end of the series, Jessica finally divulges what she has been through. Her dad asks if she’s OK, and she gives the stock answer: she’s fine.
“You don’t look fine,” he says.
And finally she tells him the truth.
Let’s hope our kids trust us enough to do the same.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.