The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is a dramatically compelling show that has prompted many concerns about its romanticised portrayal of teen suicide. In our effort to help both teens and parents, we offer our best prevention strategy about having difficult conversations with your teens.
1. Respect yourself – As discombobulating as it may be for parents to anticipate their adolescent embarking on risky behaviour, risk-taking plays an important role in their teen’s development. A teens’ behaviour is not necessarily an act of rebellion. Parents can discuss healthy risk-taking behaviour. One piece of sage advice to teens: Enjoy your teen years but don’t anything that could irreparably hinder your ability to become all you can be.
2. Mental health awareness – Educate your teenager to have an awareness of their emotional and mental well-being. Knowing and teaching the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues will not only boost your teen’s knowledge of common disorders, but will also demonstrate that you’re comfortable talking to your teenager about their feelings, and that you want to be a source of support.
3. Respect ‘no’ – It is critical that parents instil within their teens to respect and adhere to the word ‘no’ when uttered by one of their peers. Respecting ‘no’ relates to sexual behaviour but it encompasses much more. If a friend says ‘no’ to other activities, it is important to respect this decision not demean the friend. The ability to remain close to someone who has different needs, is a crucial building block for intimate relationships.
4. Sexual activity – Try to remain open to whatever your teen says no matter how shocked or anxious you may feel. It is important that they have a safe place to talk about sex and sexuality and that you are aware of their concerns. If you find your teen is viewing pornography, talk to them about what they’re viewing. Children and adolescents need to understand, in an age-appropriate way, what they’ve seen. If your child is engaging in sexual activity, try to create a space where you can discuss your feelings without judgement. Even if you prefer abstinence, hiding sexual activity can create a greater divide between you and your child.
5. Being excluded – The best advice is: Don’t try and make it go away. Being excluded is hurtful. Acknowledge it is hard and disappointing. Validate their feelings and guide them at the same time not to be vengeful or act out this hurt. Later, encourage them to spread their wings and think of new things to do, places to go, another friend to be with. It is painful for the adult, but trying to ‘make it all better’ takes away an important life lesson: They can manage the hurt, get through this, and move beyond these feelings. No lectures, no rationalisations. Just be there.
6. Gender and sexual identity – Teens who are questioning their sexuality need support. They are likely unsure of who to talk to and how to talk about their feelings. They may be subject to bullying or feel shame because they perceive themselves as ‘different’. Explicitly supporting your child is crucial if they are to feel safe and protected. Engage and respect by listening, asking questions, and empathising. If they have ‘come out’ to you, ask their permission before discussing it with others. It’s important that your teen can trust you to honour their privacy. Educate yourself and find local support groups for yourselves and your teen.
7. The Façade of social media – Your teen probably engages in social media which connects people all over the world. These exciting advancements can be a healthy source of connection in your teen’s life, but they can also be the source of angst and false comparisons. Teenagers who are struggling emotionally may have a particularly difficult reaction to the glamorous photos of friends, celebrities, and peers who seem to ‘have it all’. Help teenagers understand that these public profiles are selective, often unrealistic, and are not holistic depictions of others’ lives.
8. Alcohol and other drugs – Few teenage behaviours are as alarming to parents as alcohol and other drug use. The longer a person postpones ‘initiation’ to substance use, the lower their short and long term risks will be. Late ‘initiation’ to alcohol translates to lower levels of alcohol use as a teen and less experimentation during teen years. This is considered one of the greatest preventive factors against developing substance abuse problems in adulthood. Talking about this with your them in a way that is educational, but not punitive is imperative if you want your kids be open with you about their exposure to drugs or alcohol and any experiences they may have.
9. Internet safety – Online activity is an inevitable part of your child’s life, especially as schools embrace technology for learning. Teach your teenagers internet safety strategies such as: never revealing personal information, posting messages and photos appropriate for the public eye (even if they’re sent through private messaging), and using access passwords to safeguard privacy. Apps such as: App Certain, Net Nanny or Mobile Watchdog can help regulate your child’s devices if you’re fearful of problems.
10. Sexual abuse – If your teen tells you they have experienced any unwanted sexual activity without their consent, believe them. Reports say that 8 out of 10 abused under 18s tried to tell an adult, according to research based on interviews with 60 young adults. But adults acted in only 58 per cent of cases. Sexual abuse is not about sex; it is about power and control. Although survivors often feel shame and guilt, sexual abuse is never the survivor’s fault. Flirting, wearing provocative clothing, or placing oneself in higher risk situations does not justify any level of abusive behaviour. Also, remember that abuse is any unwanted sexual activity or touching, not just sex.
11. Your child’s friend is having a hard time – It is often difficult to manage life changes prompted by a friend’s bad experience. Teens own fearfulness may lead to avoiding helping or reaching out to their friend. Acknowledge the pain of the other without being intrusive. ‘I know how you feel, you’ll be fine’ diminishes feelings. Just encourage them to be supportive. The goals for your child, and for their friend, are the same, regain equilibrium, normalise their experience and feel safe again in their relationships.
12. Marital conflict – The impact of marital issues on children depends on how disputes are addressed and communicated. Is it ignored? Is there anger and disrespect? If so, children often feel helpless, insecure, and frightened. They commonly feel guilty, believing they caused the argument. Instead, if parents demonstrate respectfulness, talk about constructively working through differences, the conflict will not be so scary or destructive.
13. Interpersonal violence – Within the past decade, we have become aware the prevalence of interpersonal violence among adolescents. Teens often do not see mild or moderate acts of violence as outside the norm. Incidences are typically hidden from adults, even when recognised as interpersonal violence. The shame and guilt experienced results in silence. An earlier study explored the issues of gender differences in adolescent dating, and found out that both males and females should be exposed to activities related to victimisation and perpetration.
These conversation tips are an excellent starting points. If you have specific questions about how to have these conversations with your teen, please reach out for help.
This article is a collaborative piece from the team of Counseling Center of the North Shore (CCNS): Dr Robert Mardirossian; Matthew Silver, MA, LCSW; Kathy Fink, MA, LCPC; Kate Gallagher, MA, LCSW, and Tracy Burns, MA, LPC. They are based in Winnetka, Illinois and facilitate personal growth, help alleviate emotional pain and assist individuals and families in managing the challenges of modern life. Their mission is to help people through life’s challenges and transitions by providing counseling, therapy and community education. You can connect on Twitter @CCNSTherapy