DR. JAMES WELLBORN: Thirteen Things to Talk to Your Teen About 13 Reasons Why


DR. JAMES WELLBORN: Thirteen Things to Talk to Your Teen About 13 Reasons Why

A Parent’s Guide

Episode 10: Side 5B Taking Responsibility & Comforting a Grieving Friend
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 12th in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.

Episode Highlights
Sherry hits a stop sign when giving Hannah a ride home from party. Despite Hannah’s concerns, Sherry drives off without reporting it. Later that night, one of their friends is killed when he runs through the intersection and strikes another car. Clay finds out that Sherry is trying to help the family who was injured in the accident she caused. Two prominent issues in this episode are taking responsibility for your actions and how to comfort a grieving friend.

Responsibility
What will your kid do when they are faced with a situation where they have to show strength of character? The problem with morals and values is they only really matter when there is a personal price paid for following them. And, you are ultimately only accountable to yourself. That’s what makes morals such a pain-and vitally important in citizens of the larger community. Character and shared morals bind a community (and make it safer for everyone). In this episode, one of the characters is afraid to report a relatively minor accident which leads to a larger catastrophe. She lets someone else take the blame. In the previous episode, the kids who were on the tapes were so desperate to avoid responsibility for the part they played in Hannah’s decision to kill herself that they planted drugs on Clay to blackmail him into letting it drop. Teenagers struggle with taking responsibility. It is important to help your kid be a responsible person.

What’s a parent to do?
Responsibility is a character trait that represents a person’s commitment to following their morals or personal values. It refers to the combination of basic characters traits like honesty and integrity and some courage. Responsible people are honest and forthright. They can be counted on to keep their word and follow through with commitments. And they hold themselves accountable for the consequences of their actions. They do what they can to make it right.

Character Check. Before you jump on your kid about being responsible, make sure there is a problem. Take moment to see how many of these characteristics of
responsibility your kid demonstrates:

  • Basically an honest person
  • Owns up to mistakes, especially when it will cost them in some way (e.g., pay for damages, parents will get mad, etc.)
  • Admits when they are wrong, especially when it makes them look bad
  • Keeps their word
  • Doesn’t try to get out of commitments they make
  • Is reliable and can be counted on
  • Doesn’t blame others for mistakes, screw ups or transgressions
  • Makes personal sacrifices to do the right thing
  • Follows through with obligations regardless of the personal cost
  • Holds themselves accountable for the consequences of their actions

If the check marks start to add up, let your kid know how much you admire what a responsible person they are and consider your work here to be done. If you only
checked one or two of these characteristics, then you may want to consider taking some time over the next several months to focus on building a firmer sense of responsibility in your kid. Here are some ways you can do that:

Model it. The most powerful influence parents have on their kid’s character
development is as a role model for how to think and act. When it comes to teaching your kids about character, it is crucial for you to live your convictions. Make sure you strive to be a responsible person. Your kids will also need to see that it is hard to do at times.

“Do as I say AND as I do” is important when dealing with teenagers because they
have a particular sensitivity to hypocrisy. Acknowledge your slip and then demonstrate what someone is supposed to do to get back on the right moral track. This means keeping your word, follow through with your obligations and hold yourself accountable to the same principles you hold your kid to.

Notice it. Point out instances of responsibility you notice in the world around you-people you observe on the street, characters in movies or books and family members. “Uncle Jeff is the most responsible person I know. I really try to be more like him.” And talk about the cost to people who shirk their responsibilities and are irresponsible.

Teach it. Give your kid direct, moral instruction. Tell them about the kind of responsible person you expect them to be. Discuss scripture, stories from your faith and cultural traditions. Talk about all that goes into being a responsible person, and why it is important.

Expect it. Set the bar high for your kids. They should rise to the level of your
expectations, which means expectations need to be high enough to require some
struggle. Use phrases like “I expect you to be a person who takes responsibility for their actions.” “When you are an adult, I hope you will be someone who keeps their word even when it is difficult.”

And, don’t forget to make room for falling short of your (and their own) character expectations. “When you screw up, I expect you step up and take responsibility for it and do what you can to make it right.”

Express it. Character and morals are supposed to be a guide for decision making and for living your life. Talk in terms of responsibility so they hear it all the time.

“That was very irresponsible of you.” “I really appreciate how responsible you have been about this.” “Don’t commit to something you aren’t going to do!” “It means a lot to me that you told me instead of my having to find out for myself.”

Encourage it. Kids know what matters to you by what you encourage them to do (and be). Make a point to reinforce actions and values you want for your kid. “Owning up to that was a very difficult thing to do. I really admire that about you. You’re still grounded, but it makes me trust you anyway. I’m really proud of you.” Pride and admiration should be used all the time, every chance you get, to frame those qualities and behaviors you want your kid to exhibit.

Anticipate it. Using future talk is a useful way to pressure your kid into growing into qualities you think are important. This means talking as though it is a given your kid will be a responsible adult.

“You are going to be such a responsible adult. It is going to serve you well, too.”

It also means helping your kid anticipate situations where you will expect them to be responsible.

“If you ran into a stop sign like that I would expect you do the responsible thing- stay there and call me so we can figure out what to do.” “I expect you to be a responsible today when you are with your friends. Do not let me down.”

Resources

Comforting A Grieving Friend
In this episode, a kid is killed in an automobile accident. Teens need to know what to do to help comfort a grieving friend in a time of loss. This has been the topic of a blog post I wrote a while ago (that you can find here). Here are some highlights of important information your teen will need to know.

What to say? There are a number of commonly used phrases that most people who have suffered a loss find unhelpful or down right infuriating. “It’s God’s will” (even though it is), “They’re in a better place.” “At least … (and anything added to this)”. The simpler the better. “I’m so sorry.” “This is just so sad.” “I feel so bad.”
Emotions. Make sure your kid knows it is OK to show their own emotion in front of their friend. It can actually help their friend feel more comfortable expressing emotions about their loss. Your kid will need to know what emotions are normal in grief over a significant loss: deep sadness, deep anger, fear, uncertainty. And then there can also be numbness and a lack of interest in things for a while.

Talking. People often worry about bringing up the deceased person. It is actually
helpful to mention them, remember them and talk about them. “Remember that time …”

Hanging out. Hanging out is a very important way to help a grieving friend. Teens who have suffered a loss often don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t feel like doing anything but also don’t want to be alone. Make sure your kid knows that they don’t have to actually do anything when they are with their friend. Just being with them can help.

Listening. Teens who suffer the death of someone they love can need to talk about what they are feeling and thinking and experiencing. They may just need to be heard. Help your kid realize that they don’t have to solve any problems or come up with answers. Just listening helps.

Silence. And, not talking is also an important part of getting through grief. This can be really hard for teens because normally silence is awkward during adolescence. Sometimes, doing things rather than talking about things helps, going for a walk, watching a movie, things that don’t require conversation. You don’t need to find ways to get someone to talk about what they are going through. For some people, silence is what is needed.

Distraction. And finally, finding distractions for those times when they are just tired of thinking about and feeling the loss. Your kid can help their friend by coming up with things to do to fill their time, something that can be hard for a person who is grieving.

When should your kid worry? Your kid needs to know when they should worry about their grieving friend. Talking about wanting to die or that life is not worth living without their loved one is the time for an adult to get involved. Sometimes, a grieving person can become reckless and start taking risks that could lead to serious injury (e.g., driving at night with the lights off, using more dangerous drugs or regularly drinking to excess), especially if they were not like that before the loss. Be sure your kid knows you expect them to talk to you if their friend starts showing behaviors that worry them. Together the two of you can figure out the best way to help their friend and keep them safe.

Resources:

A more detailed review of ideas for helping your kid know how to help a grieving friend can be found here on my website.

There are also a number of more general books on parenting kids through grief
and loss as well as books for teens about grief and loss.

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.

Next: Missed opportunities and judging others are two prominent issues in Episode 11 that will be discussed in the next column.

Dr. Wellborn is an adolescent and family psychologist in Brentwood, Tennessee.  He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century.  Find out more about him by visiting his website at www.drjameswellborn.com

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