Because I refuse to believe it's inevitable that teens won't talk to their parents.
This weekend I finally watched the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why, which is the current obsession of pretty much every human being I know. I have to admit, I was nervous to watch it.
Ever since having children I have a tendency to flip out at the mention of any tragedy involving a child of any age, but the subject matter — bullying and teen suicide — felt too significant in relation to life today for me to pass it by.
So I sat down to watch the first episode around 3:30 pm on a Saturday — and stayed glued to my spot for the duration of all 13 episodes in a row. Every.Single.One.
While the show, impressively executive produced by Selena Gomez, is full of complex storylines and characters worthy of lengthy discussion, as the mother of a teenager I was particularly interested in the relationship between Hannah, the girl whose death by suicide is the series' centerpiece, and her parents.
Hannah is the only child of a couple who moves to a new town for reasons that are never clearly explained.
There are brief mentions of their financial woes as small business owners struggling to stay afloat amid competition from a major chain store, as well as brief mentions of Hannah having trouble with girls at her former school. Hannah's parents are also shown fighting with each other often, as is only natural for any couple going through severe financial strain.
And they do ignore Hannah to a degree from time to time, though both also try to bring themselves out of their own concerns every so often to ask Hannah how she is and how things are going. Any parent who has ever gone through such a rough period in their lives can surely relate to how hard it is not to fall into that trap.
But what struck me most about Hannah and her parents was that while each episode revolves around one major event — one the 13 total reasons Hannah gives to explain her choice to die by suicide — in not even one instance does Hannah turn to her loving, supportive parents to ask for either sympathy or help.
And the same goes for the rest of the teenage characters and their parents.
Not one of these high school students is ever seen saying, "Hey Mom and/or Dad. Something really, really awful happened today." Not ever.
And who could help but wonder not only why not, but of course, what if?...
Which got me thinking of my own conversations with my own teenager, and then farther back to MY high school days. And yeah, most of the kids I knew at that age never even considered sharing the kinds of highly embarrassing, deeply troubling and all-too-realistic experiences depicted in 13 Reasons with their parents either.
But I did.
And not because I was some goody-goody. I mean, kind of and in some ways, but not totally.
The reason I talked to my parents about even the most embarrassing and painful issues of my teenage years was pretty basic. They told me I could.
Over and over and over again.
And then they made good on it.
From the time I was little, and I mean really little, my parents let me know it was really and truly OK to ask questions. When I was around 7, I happened upon a Playboy magazine and asked my mom what it was. While some parents may have understandably felt mortified and tried to brush the question off, my mother simply and calmly explained that women's bodies are beautiful and people like looking at them.
To which I added another question. Could I look at the magazine? Still unphased, my mom said sure, and I settled in with a copy. My dad walked by and asked what on Earth I was doing.
Me: "Mom said I could look."
So my dad shrugged his shoulders and went on about his business. After which, guess what ... the magazine was actually kind of boring. Once the shock factor of the nude pictures was explained and normalized, it was neutralized. And it was no big deal, so there was much more fun to be had with my Barbies than reading a stuffy old magazine.
And I had learned the most important lesson: It really was OK to ask my parents a "weird" question. I didn't get into trouble and I wasn't made to feel wrong or bad. I was simply given truthful answers. Cool!
My parents reinforced that lesson many times as I grew up, and the next most meaningful example I can remember came along in my teens.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was my mid-teens and riding along in the car with my dad, who was talking to me about a friend of his who had a son a few years older than me. He and this friend would swim together regularly in the mornings and then chat in the gym jacuzzi for a while afterward. My dad was telling me that he couldn't believe that his friend did NOT want his slightly older teenaged son to come to him with questions or information about his sexual activity.
The guy had said something to my dad along the lines of, "Why would I want to know what he's up to with that stuff?!"
My father turned to me and said (also something along the lines of), "I always want to know what is going on with you and your brother, and I want you both to know you can talk to me about anything. Your mom and I are here to help you through life and there's nothing you should feel embarrassed or wrong to speak with us about."
I'd already experienced that when I went to my parents with questions, I received honest answers. And when I went to my parents for help, I got help. Like, actually helpful help.
It was only when I didn't tell them about something or tried to hide parts of the truth, that I got in trouble (there's a long and now-funny story about my car getting totaled when I was 16, but that's for another day).
You probably think that's weird, right? Pretty much everyone I've ever told that to thinks it's weird. And I'm totally OK with that, except I wish people would instead realize how healthy it was.
Because the quality of your conversations with your kids of any age has a FAR greater effect on their well-being than the amount of time you spend with them total.
Studies have shown that while "the sheer amount of time parents spend with their kids between the ages of 3 and 11 has virtually no relationship to how children turn out, and a minimal effect on adolescents [and their] academic achievement, behavior and emotional well-being."
In fact, sociologist Melissa Milkie, Ph.D. of the University of Toronto, who co-authored the study referenced above, said the following:
“If we’re really wanting to think about the bigger picture and ask, how would we support kids, our study suggests through social resources that help the parents in terms of supporting their mental health and socio-economic status ... The sheer amount of time that we’ve been so focused on them doesn’t do much.”
Rather, the researchers conclude that "Adolescents who experienced more engaged maternal time had fewer delinquent behaviors. Additionally, teenagers who spent more time engaged with both parents had better outcomes, including better behavior and higher math scores."
Basically, you can spend all of the time in the world in the presence of your kids, just as so many of the parents portrayed in 13 Reasons Why do, but if you are not able to engage them in quality conversation, you're not doing as much as you may think you are in regard to keeping them or their future safe.
So back to me at 17 and about to discard my V-card.
My thinking was, no matter how smart and safe people are when they have sex, shit happens. I didn't want my parents to have to learn I was sexually active only because I had to come to them suddenly for help because I'd gotten pregnant or had caught an STD or something else along those lines.
And guess what. When I was 18, I caught herpes from that same boyfriend I'd lost my virginity too while thinking I was being so safe and smart.
And I went to my parents for help. And they helped me.
In contrast, those kids I know whose parents believed they were "pure" and "innocent" were the ones who suffered most deeply when they went through difficult times related to sex, drugs, and other issues kids are scared to discuss with their parents.
And as a parent now, the kids I've watched bully others or make risky decisions are the same ones whose parents I have heard with my own ears insist their sweet children have no idea that porn, sex, drugs or foul language exist.
Uh-huh. Right. And Al Gore invented the Internet. I hear you.
My oldest son is almost 14 now. He's just barely a teenager and still more than a year off from high school, but I hope with all of my heart that the conversations I've had and will continue to have with him (and his brother, of course), which I try to model after the way my parents spoke honestly and without judgment with me, have given him the clear message that not only can he come to me with even his most embarrassing or worrying questions and issues.
And in return, I promise to always give truthful answers and/or find actually helpful help.
If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, please seek help immediately by calling The National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There is hope!