When Evan Rachel Wood swings around her long, blond hair and thrusts out her newly studded tongue at her mother in the movie Thirteen, parents of adolescent girls across America will have the same dreadful thought.
Could this happen to my daughter?
It certainly ran through the mind of Susan Saltrick, a New York mother who caught a sneak preview of Thirteen with her own 13-year-old daughter.
The movie, which opens in theaters today, takes an unflinching look at the life of 13-year-old named Tracy (Wood) who befriends Evie, the most popular girl in her Los Angeles high school. Soon Tracy joins her troubled pal in a disturbing odyssey of sexual experimentation, drug use, shoplifting, and "cutting," a type of self-mutilation that involves slashing one's own flesh with a sharp object.
In short, Thirteen is chock-full of the stuff that keeps parents awake at night.
"I was stunned and shaken," Saltrick said. "It was striking to me the transition, how quickly it all eroded. The mother couldn't intervene, and it all felt very accelerated. It was every parent's fear, as though this girl just fell off a cliff."
To Saltrick, the most disturbing part was watching Tracy descend from an A-student who wrote poetry in her spare time to an angst-filled teen who cuts herself. And, even more chilling, this isn't a story dreamed up by a Hollywood producer.
Good Girl, Bad Girl
Nikki Reed, the 15-year-old who plays Evie, co-wrote the screenplay, basing it on her own life — though she says the sex and drug use were overexaggerated.
In real life, she says, she was the "good girl" led astray by a "bad girl" friend — but it wasn't just peer pressure. Reed says she simply woke up one day with a liberating thought: She would no longer care what her mother or teachers thought about her actions.
Sarah Meyer, Saltrick's 13-year-old daughter, said that she wasn't as shocked by the movie as her mother was, but she did find it scary.
"I know kids who have taken drugs, and had sex, and cut, but not who have done all those things, not on such a scale," Sarah said. "She [Tracy] was doing it all as bad as she could."
But do parents of pre-teens really need to prepare themselves for the girl-gone-wildness that drives the movie? Probably not, experts say.
"The adolescent rebellion business is overblown," said Harold D. Fishbein, a psychology professor at the University of Cincinnati.
Whether children rebel in their teen years really depends on how well their families can rein them in, he said.
That said, it can indeed be bad news when a child gets involved in drugs or becomes sexually promiscuous early on in adolescence.
"I'd say that earlier in adolescence is more detrimental than later in adolescence, and that the problems with drugs are more serious in the long run than problems with sex," Fishbein said.
Time to Change
But even teens who use drugs early on in are not necessarily condemned to a life of trouble. The teenage girl who smokes pot today is by no means the crack-den squatter of tomorrow.
"The younger they start, the more enduring the behavior, but there can be two consequences," said Lewis P. Lipsitt, a professor emeritus of psychology, medical science and human development at Brown University.
"That child may get into more trouble, or they may have more time to have an epiphany, and more time to have an opportunity to reform," he said.