She’s Come Undone, or at Least You Have: Understanding 13

The perils of parenting a new teen.

Posted Apr 06, 2014

Thirteen seems to be the age of dissension

Thirteens seems to be the age of dissension

My phone has been ringing off the hook these days. I am receiving calls from friends, family, heck; I have even gotten some calls from friends of friends I barely know. At school and community events, sports practices and games, the chatter among the moms and dads seems to be similar. The common denominator, they all have kids who are now 13.

“She’s a bitch, he’s so angry, I annoy him, I embarrass her, and of course, she says she hates me.” Quite frankly that last one hurts parents the most.

The incredible thing perhaps, is that when parents who know each other’s kids get together to compare notes, they are shocked and amazed.

Mary tells Mara how lovely and polite Mary’s daughter seems when it is Mara’s turn to drive the carpool. Mara says the same thing about Mary’s son. Tabitha tells Sam that her son is so helpful and intelligent, while Sam’s impression of Tabitha’s son is that he is talkative, friendly, and bright. A far cry from the way Tabitha would describe him these days mainly: argumentative, demanding, and dismissive.

“What happened to that sweet, helpful, momma’s boy,” laments Tabitha. While Mary is trying to figure out when her kind, calm daughter suddenly became so dramatic and emotional. “I can’t say anything to her without her perceiving it as a criticism. The other day I asked her to clear the table and she broke down and cried. She screamed at me and told me I had no idea what is like to be her. Didn’t I realize with all the homework she had to do there wasn’t time for her to clear the table, I mean really,” reported Mary.

But it is not just an attitude most parents report. It is not uncommon to hear a parent distress about how anxious and sad their child seems to be. Kids at this age can seem especially overwhelmed and overworked. Their emotions are on overload.

Thirteen is an age at which most kids begin to feel changes both inside and out. The emotional storm encouraged by a mix of hormonal changes and increased outside pressure and responsibility is enough to bring any individual to the edge.

The majority of children at this age work hard to keep the daily multitude of thoughts and feelings they experience together during the day. It is when they are with the ones to whom they feel closest that they take down the guard. They stop working so hard and let it all go; hence the Jekyll and Hyde experience many parents report.

What makes 13 the magic number of change? It is hard to really offer one explanation.

Parents can and should use the expanded capacity for abstract thinking that their teens now possess to their advantage. Most kids at this age have an ability to see another’s point of view; it is just not their natural inclination. A calm and caring conversation at a convenient time with your teen can really make a difference. When parent’s point out their own perception of their thirteen year old’s reactions and responses, parent and child can reach a mutual understanding. Consistent communication with a teen at this age is key. A little bit of reflection and validation can go a long way toward helping a teen feel both understood and valued. Thirteen can be both an exciting and stressful time in a child’s life.

Being thirteen in today’s world is in many ways more complicated. It is common for these teens to start expanding their horizons through social networking.

A recent study found that teens report that they can talk more easily about things through social media than in person. In fact it is not uncommon to hear a parent report that the teen they encounter through texting is very different than the child they face at home. Perhaps this is because texting requires one to communicate simply and directly. Texting also provides a sense of distance that can feel comforting and safe.

Other avenues of social media such as Facebook, tumblr, and Snap Chat provide  teens with a forum in which to express their feelings and compare notes with others. There is certainly a sense of relief for teens when they realize they are not alone in their thoughts and feelings. One common concern amongst professionals however, is that this open access can in fact encourage negative coping skills (such as cutting and other self-injurious behaviors) because these ways of finding emotional relief are normalized.

Social media can also often create unnecessary drama in ways more far reaching than high school gossip and rumors. Put simply, drama begets drama. A passing comment can create a flurry of criticisms and quickly go ‘viral.’ By now we are all way too familiar with stories of suicide directly linked to episodes of cyberbullying.

Todays teens may seem more alert, aware, and even dramatic in great part because of their access to the world at large. Their senses are being flooded with images, voices, and stories from around the world. The difficulty these days is that we are expecting tender thirteen-year-old brains to process and understand more information, communication, and connection than ever before.

We are all still learning more effective strategies to manage all the information we now have available. Perhaps in the generations to come, this access will not have as much of an impact on our teens. From a cultural perspective, perhaps they will have already learned effective coping mechanisms to manage the mayhem such open access can create.

Today’s 40 is yesterday’s 30, while today’s 13 feels like yesterday’s 20, the contrast is concerning. As parents the role is rather clear, to help our kids tuck it in and pull it together. Thirteen is a difficult age for parents and teens. With consistent monitoring and a firm set of boundaries and limits, parents can help their teens negotiate a more complicated world. Although he may say he hates you today, in a few tomorrows, he will reflect back and thank you for holding the line, standing strong, and caring enough not to give in.


Reich, Stephanie M. Subrahmanyam, Kaveri Espinoza, Guadalupe; Developmental Psychology, Vol 48(2), Mar, 2012. Special Section: Interactive Media and Human Development. pp. 356-368. Publisher: American Psychological Association.