We’ve received a lot of questions about the recent Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” that’s become popular among teens. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s about a young girl named Hannah Baker who commits suicide and leaves behind a box of tapes explaining her reasons for ending her life. Each episode provides flashbacks related to each of her reasons.
The show’s creators may have hoped to give viewers a better understanding of why some young people choose to end their lives. But however well-intentioned their efforts may have been, this bleak, disturbing series is likely to create some side effects. For one, it’s another example of programs that romanticize suicide, presenting it as an acceptable, almost noble solution for life’s challenges. For another, teen suicide is an oddly contagious phenomenon. When a teen in our community makes that tragic choice, all of us in the mental health field brace ourselves, because we know others are likely to do the same.
The teen years are inherently difficult time. Even young people who seem confident are struggling inside as they navigate the journey to adulthood. Suicide can appear to be a relief from deep pain. It can be a desperate cry for attention, or an angry way to lash out at someone for perceived slights. But suicide is a permanent option for what’s invariably a temporary challenge, and troubled teens don’t need Hollywood holding up self-harm as a life raft.
That said, if your teen has already watched the series, make it an opportunity to start a conversation to share messages they desperately need to hear … and trust us when when we say this – they need to hear from you more than from anyone else, regardless of whether or not they act like they’re listening.
They need to know that they are worthy children of God who have an important place in your family and a specific purpose for our world. They are precious in His eyes and were created for a reason uniquely designed for them. He has given them gifts and resources they may not yet have discovered. Remind them that you will walk each step of the way with them as they discover that truth.
Your teen also needs to know that troubled times don’t last, that each sunrise brings new hope, and that each challenge we overcome prepares us for the next. There’s no need to sugar-coat life or tell them everything is going to be perfect. You want them to become resilient adults who are capable of handling problems with strength and wisdom. Share challenges you’ve overcome and be transparent about times you’ve struggled. Talk of the obstacles God has guided you through and remind them that there are many chapters remaining in their life. And whatever you say, don’t dismiss the pain they feel but encourage them through it.
There is more to their world than they currently notice. As adults we know it, but teens can become so obsessed with a situation that they fail to see everything else around them. Show them the bigger picture and expand their view.
Encourage them to be a light for others. In “13 Reasons Why,” Hannah’s peers learn how they may have deliberately or inadvertently contributed to her despair, and they experience guilt and regret. Help your teen become aware of others’ needs, so they can support and encourage them. When we help others, we not only serve God by lifting them up … we find more joy in our own lives. The best way to teach this to your children is by being an example of how we can serve others.
Most of all, they let them know that there is help for them in troubled times. The Netflix series appears to ignore mental health resources that could have given Hannah a different path. Make sure your teen knows that resources are available and who they are. Take any mention of suicide or self-harm seriously. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that our professionals are here to help. Call us and we can sit down with your teen … or talk with you to support the unimaginably difficult job of parenting a troubled teen. But don’t delay. The sooner you start, the more powerful the right reasons for living can be.
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