IMPORTANT NOTE: The following article deals with difficult subject matter and mature content. It contains some graphic descriptions of troubling situations faced by teenagers and young adults, as well as firsthand accounts of disturbing situations (written by an adult who is now having these conversations with her child). We have not modified the contents of her firsthand account, nor have we changed her words. Suicide, sexual violence and bullying are serious issues facing teens and young adults across the country. In this article, we examine the difficult conversations that are being prompted by a popular television program, and we have spoken to a local mental health professional, who provides her advice for parents and guardians.
Parents, teens and young twentysomethings are talking about a controversial television program currently airing. 13 Reasons Why is based on the best-selling books by Jay Asher by the same name. The program begins “with teenager Clay Jensen as he returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker—his classmate and crush—who tragically committed suicide two weeks earlier. On the tapes, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Through Hannah and Clay’s dual narratives, 13 Reasons Why weaves an intricate and heart wrenching story of teenage life.” (NETFLIX)
My nephew, Aidan Fisher, recently and publicly shared his feelings about 13 Reasons Why. He is 21 years old, a Miltonian, and he and I often discuss our favourite television shows and films. Aidan experienced some bullying while growing up, and he saw it happening to some of his friends. He says that he felt it was important to express his feelings about the show publicly because, according to him, “Not a lot of shows/films I’ve seen have done such a realistic representation of bullying and how it can affect a person. A show like this was definitely needed.”
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH, BY A TWENTYSOMETHING
By Aidan Fisher
“I think that everyone should really take an interest in 13 Reasons Why. It’s based around a very upsetting subject, with its theme of suicide. However, in my opinion, comes across as a message piece. I’m over halfway finished watching the series and I have noticed there is controversy around it. Which I understand to a point. It can be graphic and difficult to watch.
But we can’t pretend that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen everywhere in the world. It may not end bullying completely, but I hope it at least gives bullies or people who like to make jokes that go too far, insight into how one joke can be the thing that pushes someone over the edge.
We’ve all said something that has offended someone in some way, or said something that we may not have known caused someone’s mood or feelings in a particular moment to worsen and become harder to deal with.
It’s about changing the way we may say things to each other, and learning from the mistakes we have made. Even on social media—on posts or with memes or name-calling that may seem harmless to you, may not be so harmless to another person.
I just hope for those watching this series, that we really take the messages from it and apply it to our lives from here on out. No more judging, no more spreading something you hear about someone to other people, no more trying to humiliate someone online or in public, no more bullying in general.”
IN HER WORDS:
A MILTON MOM WATCHES 13 REASONS WHY WITH HER TEENAGER
About a month ago, I asked my son if he would like to go out shopping with me. He said “No” and when asked why not, he explained that he was watching a series on Netflix called 13 Reasons Why and he had to watch the last episode. I was intrigued and said I would watch it with him. He said that I couldn’t watch the last episode without watching the whole series and then told me a little bit about it. I started watching it the next day and he sat and watched with me every day. The series opened up conversations that I probably never would have had with him and it brought back memories I really thought were long buried.
As a young child, my father would come home several nights a week drunk. He would often come home late when we were supposed to be in bed. My parents would argue and I would sit at the top of the stairs and listen. One night, I decided to go downstairs. As soon as I entered the room, the argument stopped and my mother returned me to my bed. I was so happy to have stopped the fighting that I would do it whenever they fought loudly enough for us to hear upstairs. I was four years old. A few years later, my little brother was born and I was so excited. He was like a little doll for me to play with and protect. My father’s drinking continued and he would come home drunk and if you did something to make him angry, you might get a slap, a fist, or the belt. When I was around 12, he came home one night in a sour mood and my little brother made him mad and he went after him. I stepped between them and told my father that we had had enough and he was not to lay a finger on either of us again, or he would be the one on the ground. I remember the rage in his eyes and the contempt but he walked away that night. That strength and learned responses helped me a lot in the years to come.
MEMORIES THAT WERE TRIGGERED WHEN I WATCHED THIS PROGRAM
I was popular and well liked in junior high and because of this attracted a bully who spread rumours around the school that I stuffed my bra. Some of my childhood friends joined in on the teasing and I would sometimes go home and cry. Living in a very small rural community, I quickly learned who my real friends were during those years. I went over to a friend’s house one night and she invited two boys over. The lights were turned off and the boy kissed me and put his hands on me. I let him do that because I wanted him to feel me and go to school the next day and let everyone know that they were real.
My first sexual experience happened when I was 16 years old with a very sweet 16-year-old boy. It lasted about 60 seconds and I was pretty disappointed because my friends had built this up to be the end all and be all. I didn’t have much interest in it after that but for some reason, that boy spread rumours that I was amazing in bed. My “minute of fame” reputation lasted for the rest of my high school career.
A friend called me one night to say that she was drinking with a friend of her Mom’s and could I please come over. She must have sensed something was wrong and I am so glad she called me. When I arrived, they were both drunk and this man (he would have been around 45 years old) was mixing alcohol and making advances on my 17-year-old friend. She ended up passing out and I put her to bed and asked the man to leave. When I went to the washroom, he came back to the apartment and I found him hovering over her bed when I came out of the washroom. I kicked him out and locked the door behind him.
In senior year, a childhood friend of mine became seriously involved in a sexual relationship with a neighbourhood boy. In a small town, rumours are rampant and this couple found themselves at the centre of it on more than one occasion. She found out she was pregnant and both she and the boy wanted to keep the baby but their parents insisted that she have an abortion. She did what she was told but they were both devastated. He became addicted to drugs and she attempted suicide. Thank goodness, someone found her in time. This shocked the entire community and was a big wake up call for their parents.
At 18, I dated a really nice guy who took things very slowly and after about six months of steady dating showed me that sex can be a pleasurable and enjoyable experience and last longer than a minute. We broke up right before school ended.
In the summer after finishing high school, my cousin set me up with his best friend. He was 10 years older than me. He took me out on a few dates and we always had fun. One night, he took me back to his beach front apartment telling me that I just had to see the view from his balcony. He made me a drink and we started kissing. One thing led to another and he wanted to undo the button on my pants. I grabbed his hand and said “I’m not ready.” He started getting really aggressive, eventually pulling so hard, he broke the zipper of my pants. I was panicked but trapped underneath him. I somehow managed to bring my knee up square between his legs and he got off of me and I was able to stand up and face him. He then apologized and asked what he could do. I asked him to take me home and never call me again.
I sat there and bawled during both episodes dealing with sexual violence, and a few of the other episodes. My son just looked at me and I told him the story. I also explained that sex is worth waiting for…with the right person and someone who is special enough to share the experience with. I asked him not to rush into anything in his life and that everything worth having is worth waiting for. I thank my lucky stars every day for him because he is such a good kid. This show really brought things to light for me because our children are dealing with pressures that we can’t even imagine in this digital age.
My father has long since overcome his addictions and I have forgiven him. I also know that those childhood experiences gave me the strength and the resilience to face all of life’s challenges and overcome them. Because of his addictions, I can count on one hand the times that I have been drunk and I have never touched drugs. So, even though they were hard lessons, I am grateful to have learned them and been able to stand up to bullies and to fight for dignity and respect. I have always told my kids that they can tell me anything without fear of judgement or retribution, but that it has to be the truth no matter what. I will, in turn, always tell them the truth even though it is sometimes hard to share these stories.
If you have kids, watch this show. If you have teenagers, watch it with them and then talk about it openly and honestly. I hug my guy every day and tell him I love him every day. I thank God that he lets me and says it back to me. I don’t want to let him go but know that the time is drawing near. I will give him wings to spread and fly away and can only hope that the droplets of love on his wings lead him back home for frequent visits.
– This Milton mom has asked that we omit her name to protect those mentioned in her story.
TALKING TO YOUR CHILDREN
ADVICE FROM LOCAL PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SATINDER BRAR
Throughout my many years of working with families, my strongest belief has been that children need their parents to be parents. They need to know that the parent is the adult and can handle what they are about to tell them. This is especially true with difficult and taboo subjects such as bullying and suicide. Often parents are confused about these conversations but there is a way to have them. In order to have and maintain a healthy relationship with your children, I suggest the following five cornerstones:
- Be involved with your children. Communication connects us to one another. Be present with them in mind and body.
- Make love the context of everything do you. The conversations and decisions should be for their sake, not yours.
- Listen more than talk.
- Withhold judgment.
- Never give up on your children.
Every parent would like to believe that bullying and suicide are not relevant to their family or friends. Unfortunately, suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers, especially boys, who appear to be more successful at taking their own life than girls. Three things you must do as a parent is know that bullying is a fact of life in many schools and that suicide among teens is not unusual. You must find out if your child is a victim or a bully. Parents must educate themselves and recognize the danger signals of suicide and then seek help if you suspect a problem.
Contrary to what many believe, talking about suicide or bullying will not plant the idea in someone’s head. It can open up communication about a topic that is often kept a secret. If the conversation is not prompted by something your child is saying or doing, you CAN and still SHOULD talk about this important topic.
The following tips may help:
- Pick a time when you will have your child’s attention (a car ride is a good idea).
- Think about what you are going to say ahead of time.
- Admit it is a hard topic to talk about.
- Listen to what your child is saying.
- Don’t overreact or under react.
- Get professional support for yourself if needed.
When discussing bullying, it is important that you let your teen know that you accept bullying and know that it happens. Assure your teen they can come to you with any concerns. Do not say things like “bullying is no big deal.” Never blame the victim or say things like “You’ve probably been asking for it.”
When discussing suicide, you should ask questions if you notice any changes in your child’s behaviour. Parents should be open to discussing anything negative that has happened in your child’s life to find out how they are coping with it. Don’t ever assume it can’t happen to your child. Parents should not ignore feelings or minimize them. It is important to validate and acknowledge every child’s feelings.
Suicide and bullying are an ever-present possibility for your children. Whether your child gives any indication of either of these by their words or behaviors, take it seriously and seek professional help. In spite of your best intentions the worst can happen. The better you know your child, the better you are able to help them.
Satinder Brar is a Registered Psychotherapist with over 15 years of experience working with individuals, couples and families. Her experience includes both corporate, government and private settings. She supports her clients in finding and creating stable and happier lives and relationships while respecting and understanding their unique cultures, upbringing and backgrounds. Her goal is to help each client build on their personal strengths to feel more fulfilled, balanced and positive. Satinder Brar lives in Milton with her family and has a private practice conveniently located in downtown Milton.