Is Age 13 an Unlucky Number for Parents?

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.

For most people, their adolescent transgressions — whether they were mild or wild — are pretty much past history by the time they hit their 30s.

"Most adults do relatively well with their lives, irrespective of their adolescent activities," Fishbein said.

Bennett L. Leventhal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, says that 13 isn't necessarily a pivotal age.

"It's not so magical; it's the first year of being a teen," Leventhal said.

For most girls, the physical changes associated with puberty happen quite a bit earlier. But there are definite cultural landmarks associated with entering the teen years.

For Jewish kids, 13 is the age of the bar or bat mitzvah, a ceremonial bridge into adulthood. Being 13 often means leaving the safety of elementary school for the unpredictable halls of a junior high. Girls who were shopping in the kids' department can suddenly fit into low-riding jeans and belly-baring shirts in the juniors department.

Teen rebels who take truly dangerous risks are not as common as many think, Leventhal said. Perhaps anywhere from 3 percent to 10 percent engage in dangerous behavior such as sexual promiscuity, taking hard-core drugs and joining gangs. But there are scores more who settle for tamer thrills, such as skateboarding.

The majority grow relatively gracefully into their teen years, and those kids who become risk-takers as teens likely were almost certainly risk-takers as children too, Leventhal said.

Parental Fear Factor

Beata Zuba, a 17-year-old from the New York borough of Queens, says she knew plenty of kids who got into trouble with drugs and sex once they reached their teens. She didn't, thanks in part to her own personal fear factor — mom and dad.

"Both of them were strict," Zuba said. "I was scared of my parents. If I did anything like that, they would get mad, and I would get grounded."

She said she hung out with friends who didn't do drugs and stayed involved in extracurricular activities — stuff that kept her too busy to get involved in much mischief.

Many adults overestimate the power of peer pressure, and perhaps underestimate the impact that loving adults and positive role models can have on a teen, Lipsitt said.

"Parent A may think it's Parent B's child who is dragging down their child," Lipsitt said. "But it isn't a matter of bad kids dragging down good kids."

Although kids labeled as troublemakers may be influenced by other children, it is often pressure from adults — and the anxiety that some parents feel about their own adolescence — that can create problems.

Teens And Sex

For instance, a parent who had sexual problems as a child of 13 or 14 might have dealt with them by withdrawing from sexual activities altogether, and they may expect their child to do the same, Lipsitt said.

But in this generation, there is a much more permissive attitude about sex, and what worked for mom or dad may not work for their children, he said.

"A generation ago, kids were worried about syphilis; now it's AIDS," Lipsitt said. "Parents think their kids are even more at risk."

But in fact, statistics show that today's teens are pretty savvy about sex, he said.

In a report released this past spring, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy said one in five young people — boys and girls — has had sex by the time they reach 15. But the same organization also reported the U.S. teen pregnancy rate fell 19 percent between 1991 and 1997.

The fact that teen pregnancy is down means that adolescents know how to protect themselves against both pregnancy and disease, Lipsitt said.

Role Models, and Dinner Hour

Experts say that teens need role models, adults in their lives who set limits on their behavior, and that they also need a set academic or vocational path to help keep them on the straight and narrow.

"The more disorganized a family is, the more at risk the child," Lipsitt said. "If for example, the child has no meaningful dinner engagements with his own family, that child will be more likely to adopt risky behaviors."

In Thirteen, Tracy is raised by her single mother, played by Holly Hunter. Researchers still have not concluded what impact a single-parent home has on children's development, Lipsitt said.

But Leventhal said the number of parents involved in raising the child makes a huge difference.

"Being in a one-parent household is very hard for a parent, even if they are a good parent," Leventhal said. "Look at the time it takes for parenting and the pressure of parenting. One-parent families are more likely to have difficulties."

In three decades of working with teens, Leventhal said the biggest changes he has seen is that adults expect teens to act more like grown-ups than they ever had to before, and kids are exposed to more sexual imagery than previous generations were.

"There's a push toward having them behave more maturely than they can think," he said. "We let children dress and behave more like they're little adults, and they're not little adults. They're children."