Why we need to talk to our teens about ’13 Reasons Why’

It’s every parent’s absolute worst nightmare. Suicide. Which is why when I caught up with the news this week of the latest Netflix series doing the rounds with our teenagers, 13 Reasons Why, I had this instant sick feeling wash over me and a compelling urge to get up from the couch to go hugs my kids. The graphic series is a confronting story of a high school student who commits suicide and leaves behind a disturbing trail of recordings and flashbacks blaming those who contributed to her decision to end her life.

As a parent of teens these days there is no shortage of things to worry about. Just last week we learned that a fifth of our kids are at the ‘extreme’ end of internet usage. And hot on the heels of that, we learned that in the same research, New Zealand has been rated second worst in the OECD for teenage bullying. It sure makes for dim reading. But it’s the potent cocktail of bullying and suicide that has recently landed on the screens of our teens that has us as parents feeling helpless and alarmed all over again.

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Regardless of the debate that has kicked off about whether this series glorifies suicide or is a powerful tool for prevention, this, either way, is undoubtedly a renewed invitation for us as parents to take the initiative to lean in and connect with our teens.

So what are the things our teens need to hear from us as they navigate teen-hood? More than anything our teens need to know that we have their back. Regardless. As they head out there and face the challenges of growing up in our big wide world, they need to know that they have a place to come back to and unload.

They need us to understand that the pressure they feel is real and understandable and they need us to stay curious about what it is like to do a day in their world. Ask them about the best and worst parts of the party they were just at, or the test they just sat. Let them know it’s okay to feel negative emotions and have sad times, like a sad lunchtime – and give them room to express it. We might not be able to fix some of the really hard stuff they are dealing with but we can sit there with them and listen so they don’t feel completely alone in it.

They need to know that although we obviously we love them, we also like them. Bottom line, our teens need to know that regardless of what life throws in their direction, we will face it together.

One quick tip to get a conversation going

Use open questions but set them up to engage by giving them an on-ramp to the conversation. So instead of, “How was your day?”, an easier question to get them talking is, “I was thinking about you today, how did you get on with Ben at lunchtime?” Or, “Seems like you have heaps on your mind right now, how are you finding things with your mates at school?”, “You don’t really seem like your usual self these days, is there stuff causing you grief at school?”

Where to get help
  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633
  • Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
  • Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (Monday – Friday, 1pm to 10pm, Saturday – Sunday, 3pm to 10pm)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.