Conversations with Teens: Exploring Sensitive Topics

The recent Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, has stirred lots of discussion amongst the media, parents, adolescents, and professionals working with adolescents. The series, based on a book of the same name by Jay Asher, explores topics of bullying, sexual harassment, rape, and suicide and is wildly popular among adolescents. Many adults are concerned that the series romanticizes teenage suicide and portrays the act of suicide as a way to get revenge or become someone who “matters.”  

If you’re a parent of a teen, use this as an opportunity to talk about issues such as suicide, rape culture, stress management, drinking and drugs, and all other topics this may lead to. For this and other sensitive topics that come up in the news, media, or in your community, you may try the following strategies to open communication and aid your adolescent in processing this information.  

First, inquire about their exposure, understanding, or perception. A simple, “I heard about this show – have you heard of it?” can start the conversation. Try to adopt a conversational tone as opposed to a worried, threatened, or interrogational tone. You might add, “it’s stirring up a lot of controversy about suicide. What do you think?” You can ask, “have you seen it or do you want to see it?”  

Rather than impose what you believe about the series or the topic, be open to your adolescent’s perspective. Before you try to correct or mold their impressions, listen with respect to their take on the series, as well as, their perspectives regarding the difficult topics.  You can inquire about if they think the series is realistic or not, “do you think that’s how some kids really experience high school or is it dramatized?”  

Your adolescent’s responses may give you a glimpse of the school culture as they experience it. If you’ve got a child who is willing to talk about their thoughts and feelings on the subject, listen. Don’t be afraid to ask, “have you ever felt so bad that you thought about dying?” If your child responds with a “yes,” “sometimes,” or “sort of,” do not panic. Take your child seriously and take the conversation a little further. It’s ok to ask, “have you thought about how you would hurt yourself” or “do you think you might?” Express to your child that you want to help and that you will get them help. If your teen acknowledges some level of thinking about hurting themselves, wanting to die, or wishing they weren’t alive, they are not alone…many teens report similar thoughts and feelings. Despite that fact, seek help.  Talk to your child’s primary care physician, check with your insurance, get a referral from school or a friend and call a therapist.  

The author of 13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher, stated that he was trying to communicate a message in his book. He stated, “even though Hannah admits that the decision to take her life was entirely her own, it’s also important to be aware of how we treat we might be adding to his/her pain.”  Additionally, he adds that readers “recognized the mistakes Hannah made in not fully reaching out for help.” As far as I’m concerned, this is the meat of the topic to explore with your child. Talk openly about “what we wish people realized” and offer concrete strategies for reaching out for help by making an agreement (if you feel you might hurt yourself, just tell me, “I can’t keep myself safe” and I will keep you safe and get you help) or provide suicide hotline numbers.


Posted in Articles, Emotional Regulation, Parenting, Social Skills, Teens.