A Parent's Guide to 13 Reasons Why
Since it was released on March 31, the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why is sweeping through the world like wildfire. Even if your teen hasn’t watched it, their friends probably have—and it is affecting them deeply. Parents, schools, and churches are wondering how to address the issues raised in the show and what its impact is on our teens. It raises more questions than it gives answers. Although it is impossible to touch on all the issues raised by the show, counselor Liz Robinson is going to address several of them, along with the mental health aspect that the show doesn’t touch on and the Christian aspect of hope we can find in God’s Word.
Elizabeth Robinson is a Licensed Professional Counselor with 10 years of experience counseling adolescents with mental health issues in outpatient and psychiatric day treatment settings. She works extensively with teens who are suicidal and engage in self-harm.
As a parent, I haven’t watched the show 13 Reasons Why. What is it about?
Based on the 2007 Young Adult novel by Jay Asher, the show tells the story of high schooler Hannah Baker, who commits suicide. Before doing so, she makes 13 cassette tapes, each aimed at a specific person, detailing why that person was one of the reasons she killed herself. In addition to suicide, the show graphically addresses a number of difficult themes: rape, self-harm, homosexuality, drinking, drug use, and bullying, to name a few.
Why is it important for parents to know about this show?
If you are the parent of a teen, there is very good chance that your teen has either watched this show or has friends who have. Most of us, as parents, try to be aware of what our kids are watching and limit their contact with disturbing or graphic images. We try to teach them to make good decisions for themselves about what they watch. And yet because of the accessibility of today’s media, many teens (including Christian teens) are watching this show before their parents are even aware of it. There is a “viewer discretion” warning at the beginning of many of the episodes, but that isn’t stopping our teens from watching it
13 Reasons Why exposes teens to so many disturbing issues and normalizes and even glamorizes suicide and death. In truth, the series is well made and sucks you in, making it hard not to binge watch it. The actors do an excellent job portraying the feelings and struggles of the characters. The downside of the good acting and accurate portrayals is that it feels like you are actually watching these things happen. And the creators of the series did not shy away from difficult scenes. Instead, they made them graphic and disturbing, particularly the rape and suicide scenes. The problem is, you can’t “unsee” these graphic images. I have worked with suicidal teens for many years, and even as an adult and a professional counselor, I found the images in the show to be extremely disturbing.
A critical component that 13 Reasons Why lacks is any mention of mental illness or the fact that there is help and hope available for struggling teens! I feel this is unconscionable on the part of the creators of the show. Of those who die from suicide, 90% have a diagnosable mental health disorder. The good news is that mental health issues are treatable, and suicide can be preventable, with timely and specific intervention from a professional counselor.
What is the impact of this show on our teens?
Even if your teen doesn’t struggle with mental illness or have suicidal thoughts, 13 Reasons Why can bring out so many feelings that are hard for teens to process: sadness, confusion, hopelessness, despair, guilt. It also portrays painful scenes of harassment and bullying. And I bet that if you asked your teen daughter, she would say she has experienced some of the things that the main character, Hannah, did. She may have been teased, objectified, called names, let down by her friends, and may have even had boys touch her without her permission. These experiences are, unfortunately, all too common in high school. That understanding and feeling of shared pain could lead teens to believe that Hannah’s way is the only way to make the pain stop.
How can I help my teen process their feelings from this show?
After watching this show, teens need to have an outlet to talk about their feelings in a healthy way, ideally, with a parent or other trusted adult. Sadly, until the final episode in the series, not one teen has reached out to an adult, and most of the adults in this show are portrayed as unhelpful and out of touch. If I am a struggling teen watching this show, it is not going to inspire me to seek out an adult. But it is so critical for teens to talk about this show and the feelings or questions it may trigger with a parent, pastor, teacher, guidance counselor, or professional counselor.
If your teen has already watched this show, I encourage you, as a parent, to watch it also. You need to know what your child saw and experienced before you can talk about it in an educated way. Please see the end of this blog for a list of discussion starters for parents.
My child has not watched this show. What is your recommendation?
If your child is talking about this show with friends but has not watched it, let them know that they don’t need to watch it even if all of their friends have! Peer pressure is strong, but your parental influence and guidance are so important. And even if they choose not to watch it, they are still going to hear about it from their peers. This may trigger questions or concerns for them that are important to discuss even if they don’t ever see the series.
Before you start any difficult conversations with your teen about this show, I suggest you pray. Seek God’s support and guidance on your discussion. Ask him to let you choose your words well and for your teen to feel comfortable opening up to you. Together, examine what God’s Word says about the sanctity of life (Psalm 139:13-16; Psalm 22:10) and about how much God loves each of his children (Romans 8:37-39; John 3:16; 1 John 4:9-11; 1 John 3:1).
What can I do if I think that my child might be struggling with a mental illness or suicidal thoughts?
There are many resources available for struggling teens. First, if you feel your teen or a teen you know is suicidal (click here for warning signs), call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline at 1.800.273.8255, or click on the Lifeline Crisis Chat. If your teen says something that leads you to feel that they are at high risk of killing themselves right now, and you are uncertain of your ability to keep them safe, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room or psychiatric hospital.
This is so important that I am going to emphasize it again: If your child says ANYTHING that makes you concerned about their safety, seek help for them. Trained therapists are able to help your teen talk through what they are feeling and determine whether they are safe or not. Therapy can feel like a big scary thing, but it’s not. After the first session or two, with the right therapist, it is a safe, comfortable place to share and work through things that are hard to face. Give your child that gift if they need it.
WLCFS-Christian Family Solutions has a full staff of professional Christian counselors who work with children and teens regarding mental health issues. Our services are available either in person at our clinic locations or via secure video. Some of our counselors even conveniently provide counseling services onsite at several of our Lutheran high schools. If you want to request an appointment, call us at 800.438.1772 or visit the Request Appointment page on our website.
Our counselors are also available either in person (in certain locations) or via secure video to provide an educational presentation or facilitate a discussion for teens regarding suicide and other issues. Our counselors can provide this service to churches, schools, or community groups. Please call 800.438.1772 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to request a presentation.
If your teen has concerns about the spiritual implications of the show, encourage them to talk to your pastor. Perhaps your pastor would even be willing to lead a Bible study for teens and parents regarding suicide and the other issues highlighted in the show. Although these issues are frightening to talk about, this can be an opportunity to reach out to teens with the message of hope and comfort found in the gospel.
What if my child has a friend who is suicidal or has experienced some of the traumatic issues portrayed in the show?
It’s critical for teens to know that if they have a friend who is struggling, they should not remain silent! They need to seek out a trusted adult and share their concerns with that person. Teens often worry that if they tell an adult about something a peer told them, the peer will be angry with them. In truth, the peer might be angry, but at least they will still be alive and safe.
What if my child has a friend who has committed suicide? How do I help my child deal with their feelings of guilt about it?
I do worry about the teens who watch this show who have already lost someone to suicide. People often blame themselves when a loved one commits suicide. A huge point of this show is how much we can hurt and affect others without realizing it. It would be easy for the takeaway message of this show to be that you should blame yourself for the choice of another. Teens do need to know that their words and actions can have a huge impact on others—good and bad—but they also need to know that each person, ultimately, makes their own decisions and chooses their own actions. Hannah Baker killed Hannah Baker. She was not killed by the 13 people she blamed for her choice. If your teen has been hurtful toward a fellow teen, reassure them that they are forgiven by you—and by their Savior.
What if I don’t have the answers to my teen’s questions about the issues in this show?
Discussing 13 Reasons Why with your teen is going to stir up many emotions and tough questions. You may not have answers to all these questions. Ask your pastor about any spiritual questions you have. Make an appointment with a professional counselor to talk through some of your concerns and ask for advice in talking with your teen.
Discussion Starters for Parents and Teens (download a PDF here)
Please use this list as a springboard to a conversation with your teen. Adapt the questions according to your teen’s age and maturity level. Please know that some of these questions will be very difficult to ask, and the answers might be difficult to hear.
What did you think of the series? Starting with an open-ended question like this gives your teen the opportunity to take the conversation wherever they need it to go. Don’t be frustrated if initially the only response you get is something like “it was fine."
Was there a character that you identified with the most? Why? This question will only give you insight into your child if you actually watched the series. Knowing which character your child feels most connected to will help you understand what issues your child might be struggling with.
Have you ever experienced the kind of bullying that Hannah experienced? The answer to this is likely yes. I pray that they have not experienced it in the extreme way Hannah did, but every teen has been let down by a friend or made fun of by a peer at some point. They have all felt like an adult didn’t hear them at one time or another. Talk with your teen about the various ways Hannah felt hurt, and ask if they have experienced the same things. Ask them about how they dealt with these issues and if there is anything you can do to help them. Don’t just assume they want you to come in and fix the problem. Let them share their experience and then offer to help problem-solve.
One of the characters on the show, Jessica, was intoxicated when she was raped. What do you think this shows about the dangers of drinking and using drugs? While we don’t want to blame the character for being raped, we do want to talk with our children about minimizing risk and making safe and godly choices.
Have you or has anyone you know ever been raped or touched in an inappropriate way without permission? Unfortunately, nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will report being raped in their lifetime. I pray this will never happen to your teen, but you can help your teen understand that even things like a boy smacking a girl on the butt or pressing too close to her in line can be violating. Talk with your teen about any experiences they have had and share ideas or advice on what they can do in those situations. Talk with your teen boys about boundaries with girls. Remind them that something that may seem funny to them may damage a girl’s sense of self. Talk about how God would have them treat a young lady.
How did the rape and suicide scenes affect you? Do you want to talk about those feelings? The scenes of rape and suicide in the show are incredibly disturbing, especially for our emotionally vulnerable teens. Although this is a difficult subject, give them the opportunity to talk openly about their feelings.
Hannah doesn’t even try to reach out to an adult until the day she kills herself. Why do you think this is? Talk with your child about why Hannah and the other characters did not reach out to the adults in the series. Ask if the way adults in the series are portrayed feels accurate to them. Ask them how Hannah could have handled things differently, and really hear their responses to this. Then ask them to identify three adults they could go to if they were truly struggling. Make sure you let them know that it is OK if you are not on that list. As parents we all want to be the person our child connects with, but sometimes, for a variety of reasons, our child is not going to be able to come to us. Let them know that you support them talking to other trusted adults if that is easier and that you will help them reach out to those people if they need you to do so.
At one point in the show, Clay grabs Skye’s wrist and reveals self-inflicted cuts. She states, “That is what you do to not kill yourself.” Do you understand what she means by this? Talk to your teen about self-harm as much as you are able. Ask them if they have ever considered or acted on this. Ask them about their friends also. For more facts about self-harm, click here.
Have you ever felt that life is too hard and that it would be better if you were not alive? Have you ever thought about doing something to harm or kill yourself? This is a hard question to ask and may be a hard one to hear the answer to, but it is VITAL that you ask it. You will not give your teen any ideas by asking but may give them an opening to share feelings, and by doing so, may save their life. Also ask them about the experiences of their peers. Has anyone they know ever made comments like this? How did they respond? Is there more that you and your teen need to do to keep that child safe?
What message do you hope people take away from this series? There really isn’t a right or wrong answer to this, so just let them share their thoughts and feelings.
What do you think the Bible says about the issues that are brought out in the show? God’s Word speaks very clearly about sinful behavior. The devil works to get people to buy into the lie that if something wrong is fun or feels good, it is OK. We know as Christians that we struggle with sin each day, but we have a Savior who forgives those sins and who died to take them away. Also, please reinforce to your teen that having a mental illness isn’t the result of a weak faith. Those who struggle with mental illness can’t simply “get over it” or “count their blessings” to make things OK. It’s not that simple. They need clinical intervention. When you combine that intervention with the hope found through Christ, true healing can take place. This series is missing the critical element of hope, and we as Christians know where true hope is found. We have faith. God’s Word tells us to love each other and be a light of faith shining in this dark world. And while ultimately each person is responsible for the decisions they make, we have the power to impact those around us in a positive way.
Coming Next: A School’s Guide to 13 Reasons Why
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