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Parenting: What They Won’t Tell You, and Why

5 minute read
Michael Thompson

There is no single moment when it starts, but the change is unmistakable. Your son looks at you differently, or doesn’t want to look at you much at all. Your daughter is embarrassed by you, and her voice changes when she receives a cell-phone call. She walks away and glances back suspiciously, as if you were trying to hear something you shouldn’t. These are signs not of shallowness or rudeness (though 13-year-olds can be rude) but of a new ability to think about the world in a complex, intensely personal way.

Gradually, every parent becomes aware that his or her child has adult concerns, wants acres of privacy and no longer trusts the goodwill of parents in the same old way. These are the biggest of all changes in child-parent relations, and are almost always in place by age 13. This shift occurs not because of bad influences and media but because your child’s brain has matured and is capable of more independent judgment. Please remember, however, that the change is not locked in place. A young adolescent can bounce back and forth between ages 8 and 13 (and sometimes 15) in a matter of seconds, scorning your values yet at times still wanting to sit on your lap.

For girls, the central action is their social lives and the intensity of their feelings. No matter how much a girl and her friends are torturing one another with gossip in school or instant messages from home computers, she is convinced that if you knew what she was saying, you would disapprove or, even worse, try to interfere and make a bad situation uglier.

What is she talking about to her friends? Social power: who’s popular, who’s feminine, who’s really weird. Parents: their faults and their inability to understand 13-year-olds. Sex: who’s a “hottie,” who’s not and which girl in eighth grade–there is usually one–has taken the challenge and actually performed oral sex on a boy. Is it really sex? To girls in a competitive culture, it’s less about passion than about proving to boys that they can pass the ultimate test of toughness. Though they like to show off their bodies and have an impact, mostly on one another, 13-year-old girls really don’t intend for their sexuality to be taken seriously. Finally, girls are talking about their own powerful feelings; they have complex and sometimes overwhelming insights into life. Their joy can be great and is visible, but their despair is hidden in solitary late-night crying, journal entries, weight obsessions and, for a few, the secret self-mutilation of cutting.

Boys are preoccupied by their power and the opinion of other boys, their anxiety about whether they live up to the tests of masculinity, a new, deeper range of feelings that they may be unable to put into words and their own sexual lives. Thirteen is the time when parents finally get up the courage to talk to their sons about masturbation, and they are typically two years too late. Sons already have a well-established sexual life–with themselves. (They don’t need girls yet and won’t for some time.) Most are also seeing a lot of pornography on the Internet, which turns them on and confuses them about the nature of real relationships in the future.

The biggest boys in the seventh and eighth grades are setting a physical standard of masculinity–deep voices, big muscles–that creates anxiety in every other boy. “Am I strong enough to protect myself?” “Can I be a man if I’m not very athletic?” A 13-year-old boy hears the words gay and fag used in school every day and hopes they don’t land on him. In the kitchen he looks down into his mother’s eyes and thinks, Why is this woman giving me orders? I love her, but I’m bigger than she is. That perplexes him because he still needs her so much. Boys, like girls, are having a lot of dark nights of the soul in which they see how disappointing adults can be and how unjust society is, but they may not be able to put their fears into words, or they do not want to because it makes them feel weak.

How can parents help 13-year-olds?

*Have faith in child development. (You were 13 once, and you survived.)

*Don’t take their self-absorption personally. It’s not a plot to hurt you. Their brains, hormones and interests have changed. You’re not central anymore.

*Don’t ask them intrusive questions or read their diaries, but when you are seriously worried about them, do tell them directly in a serious way. Don’t let them blow you off with a defensive remark.

*Keep up the family rituals that have always sustained you all: family dinners, church, camping, skiing and watching the same dumb TV shows. Thirteen-year-olds need to feel that they can touch their own childhood frequently and be nourished by traditions they know well.

Thompson is a psychologist and co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, among other works

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