30 Apr


Unless you live under a rock, you have heard of the Netflix series, TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY. This adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel with the same title tells the story of Hannah, a teenage girl who commits suicide leaving behind a series of audio recordings explaining the reasons why she decided to end her life. The series has been the subject of much discussion and debate as to the handling of teen suicide. I think parents across the nation should stop critiquing the series and, instead, accept the gift that has been handed you – the opportunity to bravely confront this tragic reality with you children, from tweens to teens to young adults.

I recall the early days of parenting – the “baby-making” years – enveloped in a world of other parents of infants and toddlers. We constantly discussed feeding, sleeping, pooping, and the frequent trips to the pediatrician where the question loomed: How many shots will my child receive today? We commiserated over how long and loud our children wailed while getting shots and how unbearable it was to witness. It was as though we naively thought this was the most traumatic experience our children could endure.

I noted, during these discussions, that there were varying levels of tolerance among the parents. I was shocked and confused the first time a friend told me that she left the room whenever the nurse administered her children’s shots because she, “just can’t bear to watch.” Can’t bear? I thought. Who cares how hard it is for you? Your child needs you! I, too, found it heartbreaking, but I was built differently. It never occurred to me to leave the room. I would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the nurse, assisting her by restraining whichever limb she instructed, all the while looking straight into my child’s eyes and soothingly reminding them that, “Mommy’s right here,” while using my free hand to lovingly caress away their tears. When the shots were done, I would hug my child and tell them how brave they were – that message made clearer by my own bravery. They learned then that whatever challenges they faced, I was willing to be by their side.

Today I’m enveloped in a different world of parents with school-aged children, tweens, teens, and college-bound or attending young adults. This world has different conversations, and TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY seems to be in the top 5 topics discussed. I have heard too many parents say that they can’t bear to watch the show because it is too upsetting for them. Yet they acknowledge that their teens have, or are, watching the series – alone. Even if you’ve instructed your own teen not to watch the series, and if by some miracle they complied, know that they are hearing and talking about it at school with their peers. It would be dangerous and negligent as a parent to avoid the conversations available to you.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people ages 10-24. Studies show that 1 in 10 high school students report having attempted suicide. Further, 1 in 6 students aged 12-17 have considered suicide (see Suicidal Ideation ).  TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY is not a documentary. It does not claim to be representative of any definitive, authoritative position. Despite the captivating plot device Asher used in his extraordinary novel, 13 is not a magic number of reasons for someone to reach the point of attempting suicide. What Asher did do is relay the fact that suicide is not caused by any one thing, but rather an accumulation of feelings, events, and states of being.

The Netflix adaptation does an exemplary job of presenting the inner workings of the social dynamics typical of high school. And while suicide is the obvious overarching subject of the series, it is not the major theme. Suicide is the tragic result of the larger realities depicted throughout the storyline: peer pressure, bullying, rape and the rape culture that allows it, and lastly, the crime of silence and conformity. We are presented with teens who, for a variety of reasons, are largely disconnected from adult influence and supervision. These teens are not talking to their parents. And why is that? Maybe it’s because their parents have shown them – in both big ways and small – that they would prefer to avoid the hard discussions, to leave the room, or to look in the other direction and pretend, “not my kid.”

The wiser parenting choice is to assume, “maybe my kid,” and to arm yourself with knowledge. Watch TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY, either before or with your child. Stay in touch throughout and discuss the topics as they come up. If your teen tells you these things aren’t happening in their school, do not feel relief and assume your job is done. These things happen in every high school, despite the school administration’s claims to the contrary. Educate yourself on how to spot the warning signs that your child is anxious, depressed, targeted, bullied, or suicidal. Talk with your kids about what you’re learning. Discuss peer pressure. Discuss consent. Show your kids that you are willing and able to have the tough conversations, to be there for them no matter what they are going through.

Have your kids add the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number to their contacts (1-800-273-8255). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website also offers a chat/text option. Both the phone and chat lines are available 24-hours-a-day, every day. The website also offers information and links to other resources.

For information and resources on dating, dating abuse, consent and other relationship issues, these websites are helpful:  Love Is RespectBreak the Cycle ; Dating Abuse Stops Here ; Stop Bullying ; No Bullying .

Know that it is developmentally appropriate for teenagers to push you away, to desire distance, and to avoid conversations. Remember when they were toddlers and realized their chubby little legs could take them wherever they wanted to go? They would run into the next room, exalting in their newfound freedom, only to realize they were alone. Panic would set in and they would run back into your room, relieved to find you were still present. Your job then is the same as it is now: don’t take the distance personally and welcome them back with loving arms. And if the distance gets too far, or lasts too long, chase after them.

Yes, TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY is difficult to watch. That’s because much of what is portrayed is so real, so possible. It reminds us that actions have consequences. Words DO hurt. Rape culture thrives. It is really difficult to be a teen in this age of technology. Even though they look like full-sized humans, teens are still our children and they need our input, presence and support.

Watch the show. Have the conversations. Be informed.

Knowledge Saves Lives.

Blaire Sharpe is the author of the award-winning book, Not Really Gone.

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