Sunday, January 27, 2013

Writing (or Parenting) The 13-Year-Old: You've Got An 8th-Grader!

All the time on the web I see articles about how to tell when a child enters such-and-such a stage -- and what to do about it.  But these moms and articles always deal with children; no one wants to talk about puberty.
You see, any junior high teacher can tell you that age 13 is to adolescence pretty much what age 2 is to childhood: the worst.
Want proof?  Ask yourself honestly which year of your youth are you most embarrassed about now?  In which year did you have the most stress about yourself and yet do the most stupid things?  Was it, by any chance, 8th grade/age 13?   Over and over again, parents tell me that, yes, they would happily delete that year of their lives -- and, moreover, they'd like now to skip that year of their kids' lives.
And lots of writers avoid puberty, too.  Sure, we can all name off Judy Blume and JK Rowling as brave souls who tackle pubescent teens, but most writers don't.
I suspect this is probably because we all like to block the memories most painful and embarrassing to us, and 8th grade is way up there on the list.  If a writer doesn't want to remember age 13, the writer cannot write about being age 13.  Thus, we have writers who try to stretch the Middle Grade level clear into junior high and writers who won't touch anything below age 16, claiming that Young Adult starts there.  (It doesn't.)
Now, I've been in junior high and dealing with the trauma of puberty for more than half my life.  I can tell you a few things to remember about the workings of the 8th grade mind:

1) At 13, your body is changing in weird ways.  Adults tell you it's hormones and growth spurts and act like it's all normal.  But  your feet get too big and you get hair in weird places.  Sometimes you gain weight -- and fat prejudice is still okay, so no one is going to tell you it's okay to be fat like it's okay to have a hearing aid. You get hyper and don't know why.  You get super-tired and don't know why.  You get sexually aroused and don't dare even think about it -- and sometimes you don't even realize that's what the new feeling is.  All you want to do is scream because no one can tell you what's going on and you're too scared to ask anyway.  And then your parents yell at you for being grumpy.  Life is SO UNFAIR!

2) At 13, you are the center of the universe.  All this new weird stuff is happening to you, so the world should focus on your new experiences.  Period.  Nothing else really matters.  People are watching you, even when you don't see them.  Yes, it might be God or angels who know when you have sexual dreams and feel guilty or when you really lied to Mom about the homework.  And it might be parents and teachers who are still these mysterious beings who can TELL when you're hiding something or having a mood swing!  How scary is THAT???  And how the freak do they DO it??  (Note: kids this age have no clue about body language or facial expressions that tip off adults to such things.  It is therefore still somewhat magical to them how we know what we know.)  But it's also about your friends who might turn out to be frenemies and post pictures of you on facebook when you're looking stupid at a slumber party.  Or they might send pics of you to that one cute person you really like -- and then you'd just DIE!  Life would be OVER!
And because you are the center of the universe, you believe everyone notices if you get a huge old zit on your nose or if your hair didn't work out right or if you get your period and your pad is slipping around and oh my gosh it might show lines through your skinny jeans!  And if other people don't notice how awesome you look in your best moments or when you made that basket or got to sit with the cool people at lunch, what is wrong with them?!  Why are they not making a fuss when they're supposed to be?
And then your parents yell at you for being moody!  Life is SO UNFAIR!

3) When you are 13, the world is indeed your stage.  You think the world is watching you; your hormones are running high, and this affects your emotions.  Ergo, drama is the word.  You drop your books in front of someone cute: humiliation.  The teacher has you work with that person who is so not as cool as you are: rage. Dad makes you stand outside with a hose to water the dry spots on the lawn when you were skyping with your friends: no one understands you.  But the cute neighbor comes out to ride a bike and says hi: super-elation because s/he SPOKE TO YOU!!!
All this happens in a 3-hour block of time.  Then your parents yell at you for being over-dramatic.  Life is SO UNFAIR!!!

For some of you readers, this may have been a painful experience as you remembered your past.  :D  However, I hope that it will help a few more writers who try to deal with this age in a believable way.  (It may even explain a few things to a few parents as well.)
And other junior high teachers will just be nodding their heads and smiling.  We've seen it all, people.  We've seen it all.


  1. :)
    Even odder is that these kids who are always expecting everyone's attention will get all embarrassed and upset when the teacher brings the attention to them.

    1. Of course! Because, when the world is all about you, then it should just KNOW when you want the attention and when you want to sulk because you're not getting the attention. Duh. :)

  2. Thank you for sharing this story. I admit that I am guilty of doing some of these things to my boy. Thank you for letting me understand that this is what teenagers feel and for making me realize that I should not be "too hard" on my son.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I admit that I am guilty of doing some of these things to my boy. Thank you for letting me understand that this is what teenagers feel and also for making me realize that I should not be "too hard" on my son.