Tough Talks: Parents, Children, and “13 Reasons Why”

Thirteen Reasons Why was written in 2007 by Jay Asher. By 2011, it was #1 on the New York Times best-seller list and, unbeknownst to most parents, it is currently on many high school reading lists. For those who haven’t heard, Thirteen Reasons Why, and its Netflix adaption “13 Reasons Why”, follows the story of Hannah Baker who committed suicide at the age of 17. She leaves behind a series of cassette tapes explaining the 13 reasons why she made that final decision.

Like it or not, many teens and pre-teens have already watched or are currently watching the series.

Who could blame them?

With such an unfiltered, unapologetic take on topics such as violence and bullying, substance abuse, sexual assault, and self-harm, it is easy to become invested in the story—especially if you relate to the lives and struggles of the characters. According toVariety, it is the most tweeted about series of 2017.

Due to its popularity among middle and high school students, many mental health organizations believe that it is important to have discussions about the series’ effect on children and how parents can talk to their children about it.

On Tuesday, May 23, 2017, SARA (Sexual Assault Response and Awareness), Prevention and Wellness Services at Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, and Family Service of the Roanoke Valley facilitated a discussion for parents, community members, and  middle and high school aged-students regarding how to have open conversations about the Netflix series. The purpose of the panel was not to break down specific scenes of the show, but rather to use it as a jumping off point for conversations about the serious issues depicted in the show.

Before opening the floor for discussion, the panelists shared data about suicide rates in the United States, Virginia, the Roanoke Valley, and surrounding areas, shared suicide warning signs, and discussed resources available to our community.

The audience in the parent’s panel varied—ranging from clinical psychologists, teachers, school counselors, young professionals, to parents with their teens. The largest portion of the event was dedicated to listening to thoughts about the show and how parents can facilitate conversations about “13 Reasons Why”.

 Here are some tips and ideas for parents that I found extremely useful.

Not Everyone Needs to Watch It.Especially those with a predisposition to depression and/or anxiety, currently struggling or who have struggled in the past with suicidal thoughts, and those who have experienced sexual assault.

Watch the Show Together. By now, many middle and high school students have already watched the series and are anxiously waiting for the second season. However, parents should ask their children if they have ever heard of or seen the series. If they have not, parents should offer to watch the show together (if the child is interested and if the parents feel it is acceptable) and share their thoughts on the show; especially in regards to suicide and bullying.

Watch “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons”. “Beyond the Reasons” is the companion piece to”13 Reasons Why”. It is a 30-minute conversation where the cast, producers, and mental health professionals discuss scenes dealing with difficult issues. It can be watched either before or after each episode of the series.  

Be Open.Children should feel like they are able to speak to their parents about difficult topics without judgment, whenever and wherever. Having a safe, judgment-free space will allow children to express themselves honestly without fear. Additionally, parents should validate their child’s feelings. By accepting and trying to understand their feelings, parents will create the groundwork for the ability to have powerful and deeper conversations with their children in the future.

Be Present.It is important for parents to be both physically and emotionally present. It is true that parents have the toughest job in the world and there is a lot stress that comes with day-to-day life. However, if a parent isn’t in their child’s life, physically or emotionally, they are not in touch with what is truly happening. If a parent is not there, they are no longer someone that their child can come to, they are a stranger to the child as much as the child is a stranger to them.

Opinion from Peers Are Important. The opinions of peers matter as much to children, if not more, than the opinion of their parents. At this age, children yearn for the acceptance of their peers. So, while a parent might be telling their child that they are beautiful and smart, on social media the child might be seeing the opposite—and that is what the child internalizes and believes. So, it is important that parents teach their children how to be kind and supportive to others so they are a model for their social group and bullying becomes a thing of the past.

Be Aware That Social Media Plays a Bigger Part Today Than When the Book Was Written.

And, in turn, it’s harder for children today as they feel more victimized by attacks from their peers. Parents need to be aware of the applications downloaded on their children’s cell phone and/or tablets as well as their children’s social media passwords. Knowing what they are using and knowing what they have access to is huge as parents will not only learn what their children are saying, but also what people are saying about them.

It Takes a Village. The panel continuously reiterated the idea that it takes a community to raise a child. While one child might have a wonderful support system at home, for another that might not be a realistic expectation. But, while that child might not have a parent to talk to, there is probably another adult in their life that they confide in—whether it be another family member, teacher, guidance counselor, coach, church member, etc. If there isn’t one, it is important for the community band together and do what is best for the child.

Practice Self-Care.It is difficult to care for others when you are not taking care of yourself.

No Fear. All of the panelists encouraged parents to have difficult conversations with their children, and be open to their response. These are the realities of life and they need to be addressed. It is important to note that asking a child if they have thoughts of suicide does not increase the risk nor does it plant the idea. If parents are apprehensive due to a lack of knowledge, there is a plethora of resources, either online or within the community, that they can use and study.

While some may feel “13 Reasons Why” is not 100% accurate, it is opening the doors of meaningful conversation regarding important issues that teens and pre-teens face on a daily basis.


If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.