Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17 year old Girl, Hannah who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the second in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Clay, a shy, nice and thoughtful guy, receives a package that contains thirteen tapes from Hannah, an acquaintance friend he had a crush on. This starts the series theme of listening to Hannah narrate how 13 people affected her decision to commit suicide. The viewer switches between the present through Clay’s perspective and flashbacks to the events when they happened to Hannah. There are two major themes to this episode: dealing with the immediate aftermath of the death of a peer and the effects of rumors.
Death of a Peer
The depictions in this episode (and subsequent ones) of how people try to help a teenager who is experiencing grief after a loss portrays the ways in which these attempts can be awkward, insincere and inadequate. It also shows how kids can keep putting you off and minimizing what they are going through.
What’s a parent to do?
Ask. If your kid suffers the death of a friend (or anyone, for that matter), don’t hesitate to wade right in by asking them how they feel about the death. Don’t be put off by “I’m fine.” Come right back at them: “You don’t look fine.” or “You seem fine but this is a pretty big deal. Even if you aren’t directly affected, someone dying, especially by killing themselves, makes you stop and think. It does me. What have you been thinking?”
Share. If they won’t talk about what they are thinking, tell them what you are thinking. Not about them, about that kid’s death. When the death is by suicide, be sure to talk about how devastating it is for a parent to lose a child. That they never get over it (because you don’t). “I don’t think I would ever get over it if you died. It would destroy your dad and me. And if it was from suicide? 100 times worse.” This is to try to drive a little splinter in just in case your kid starts to think about dying as a way out.
Provide perspective. Talk about how easy it can be to focus on how things are bad or difficult or painful right now. But that’s not forever. Talk about a time in your life when something wonderful happened even though the day, month or year before it didn’t seem possible. Give them a perspective about how things can change with time either randomly or through persistence.
Hug your kid. A lot. Especially after these discussions (or after watching this show with them). It is a wonderful little indirect message of how much they mean to you (and how bad it would be if they weren’t around to hug any more). Do this until they are annoyed. And then keep doing it anyway.
You can find a more elaborate discussion about how to talk to your kid about death and loss by checking out the specific blogs below and by looking through some books that can help. Here are 3 blog posts on loss and peer suicide. You can find a list of selected books on grief and loss here on my website.
This first episode (aka side 1A of the tape Hannah made) is about how a boy bragged to friends that he and Hannah did much more than just kiss. The school rumor mill went into full motion.
There are two angles to this issue from a parenting perspective. The first is easier to get ahold of; how do you expect your kid to treat rumors. The second more difficult issue is how to help your kid deal with destructive, hurtful rumors about them.
What’s a parent to do?
Spreading Rumors. Gossiping and spreading rumors about people is wrong. Talk to your kid about how destructive it is. Review with them how rumors can effect someone (like Hannah). Tell your kid what you expect them to do when they hear rumors (e.g., not participate, tell their friends to cut it out).
The Target of Rumors. If your kid is the target of rumors, dealing with it is much more complicated. Start with telling them how much you love them and go over the specific ways you are proud of them. Remind them that some people are jerks and the importance of real friends (and FAMILY). A person should have to earn the privilege of you actually caring about and listening to their opinions. This won’t be enough alone but it will help and is very important to reinforce nonetheless.
If The Rumor Is True. If it is true, then talk to your kid about whether they are actually ashamed of what they did or that other people know about it. If they are ashamed, then focus on helping them figure out what they need to do to be more true to themselves in the future. And, to give themselves a break. This could be a brief conversation or it could turn into one of those pivotal parent-child conversation. If your kid doesn’t clarify how they feel about the rumored issue, they won’t be able to effectively address the rumors to shut them down.
If the rumor isn’t true (or after your kid has gotten some clarity about how they feel about the rumored issue), then they are ready to deal with the rumor mongers.
Confronting Rumors. Confronting people who spread rumors can be worth doing. It may stop them from continuing to gossip and it can help your kid feel less helpless. Before your kid tries to confront rumor-mongers they need be able to hold their head up and they need to be able to garner sympathy.
Holding Your Head Up. To begin with, help your kid avoid acting guilty or ashamed. It will just legitimize the rumor. Instead, your kid will need to “hold their head up.” Let them know it is important for them to go where they usually go. Look around. Smile. Talk to the people they know.
Garnering Sympathy. Most teens come across rumors after it has traveled several links down the rumor chain. Responding to this situation requires a combination of holding your head up (see above) and garnering sympathy. Garnering sympathy is about reminding people that spreading rumors hurts and people don’t deserve to be targeted. “I can’t believe people are actually spreading this lie (or, if it isn’t a lie) story. It makes me feel like crap to have people saying that. People can be such jerks.”
Turning It Back On Rumor Mongers. As with all bullying, your initial strategy should be to just ignore them. Most of the time this works. Unfortunately, ignoring will not work when your kid encounters determined or persistent rumor mongers. Your kid will need to generate a response to their insult or innuendo that can puts the rumor monger mildly on the defensive (e.g., “Why are you so interested in my business? You need to get a [appropriate expletive] life.”).
Taking It To The Source. If your kid knows who started the rumor they may want to take it to them directly. This requires a different approach from that used on people further down the rumor chain (see above). While socially risky, confronting the person who started the rumor can establish that your kid is not someone who is going to just roll over. A general formula that can work is: walk up to the person and look them directly in the eyes. Hold their eye contact for several seconds without saying or doing anything. State clearly “Stop spreading lies about me/Stop talking about me.” Turn and walk away so that they will have to talk to your back. Note: Your kid should not directly confront someone who is dangerous (i.e., a reputation for hurting people, member of a gang, on parole, etc.).
What About Social Media? The pervasiveness and immediacy of social media on electronic devices has put a whole new, more pernicious, spin on rumor mongering. This form of rumor-mongering and gossiping through social media attacks will be the focus of a future blog in this series.
When To Consult. If these first level responses don’t back shut down the rumor mongering, more complicated, coordinated strategies will be required to resolve the bullying (including the involvement of school personnel). At that point it is probably time to talk with an expert in teenage bullying (e.g., school counselors, child and adolescent therapists, books on bullying, etc.) to figure out how to gather a team of responsible adults together to help your kid resolve this issue.
There is much more to each of these aspects of responding to rumors. A more comprehensive treatment of rumor-mongering can be found in my blog on this topic.
There are a number of books and websites on my website you might also find helpful.
Note to reader: the teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.
Episode 2 (Tape 1B): Hope and Respect. This blog is inspired by episode 2 (which is tape side 1B) with information about how to instill hope in your kid and the importance of your kid treating people with respect.