This guide is intended to provide some context into what you might expect for neuro-typical thirteen-year-old development. Milestones and development are different for everyone.
Age 13 gets a bad rap. The groans and moans you hear from parents of post-adolescents when you have a 13-year-old are enough to scare even the most confident parent or caregiver. Yet, while this age is far from easy, it is also one of the most rewarding times in adolescence. Read on for your guide to age thirteen.
It can be a difficult phase because 13-year-olds frequently act like your guidance isn’t welcome or needed. Seemingly overnight, everything you do embarrasses them. Your 13-year-old will request more space and privacy and even push you away. As the adult in the room, your job is to take a deep breath, stay calm, and not take this “teenager treatment” personally. Instead, use your adult social-emotional learning skills to empathize with your 13-year-old.
Your child is working on shifting their self-identity to one of an independent teenager. Piled on to deep soul searching is the multitude of physical, hormonal and emotional changes 13-year-olds live through daily. It is hard as a parent of a teen to see them struggle or suffer with problems and challenges. So, take another breath, stay calm, and push pause on the urge to jump to their rescue. Part of parenting a teenager is learning how to support them through challenges without fixing things for them. You can give them guard rails to keep them safe, but they will only learn about failure and success through occasional scrapes and bumps up against your guard rails. Use this guide for your 13-year-old to help you teach your child how to make healthy and safe decisions independently.
The major developmental milestones for 13-year-olds
Age 13 language and communication milestones
Adolescents become skilled at code-switching or adapting their communication styles for various audiences. For example, most understand the importance of using more formal speech and polite manners in front of teachers, older relatives, or people with authority. In addition, in adolescence, non-verbal responses (aka the shoulder shrug) become important as the preferred language for peer-to-peer communication and belonging to friend groups.
By age 13, your adolescent will:
- Be able to tell a personal narrative.
- Use appropriate stress patterns and often “over the top” emotional language to communicate with peers (hello drama).
- Use and even produce new slang terms frequently.
- Use more descriptive language, including adverbs of magnitude (slightly, rather, unusually) and adverbs that describe likelihood (probably, certainly, definitely).
- Most likely do a lot of their peer communication via text.
Age 13 social and emotional learning milestones
Thirteen-year-olds’ top priority is to belong with and fit in with their peers. As a result, they are more likely to only think of themselves. This developmental focus makes them more vulnerable to peer pressure. Social awareness and empathy are learned behaviors, so middle adolescence is when your teen cultivates these emotional survival skills.
You may observe them:
- Demonstrating adolescent egocentrism — “everyone is looking at me” and “my experiences are supremely unique”.
- Feeling concerned about their appearance and physical changes.
- Seeking independence and adult approval simultaneously.
- Forming and maintaining healthy, intimate (but not necessarily sexual) relationships.
- Choosing their peer group as their safe haven in tough times, not their parents or caregivers.
- Feeling the need to establish their sexual identity (middle adolescence 11-13 years old).
Age 13 cognitive skills
Every adolescent develops their cognitive skills at a different rate. Sometimes parents, teachers, and teens themselves wonder whether a learning disability could be the cause of academic struggles. Learning disabilities vary in how they impact your teen’s cognitive skills. Asking for help can be even more challenging for teens who are already struggling with issues of identity and self-worth.
Teens not diagnosed with a learning disability until adolescence have found other ways to cope or mask their difficulties.Unfortunately, this can make recognizing and diagnosing alearning disability that much harder.. Approximately two in five boys and girls with ADHD aren’t diagnosed until they reach junior high or high school. The National Center for Learning Disabilities offers a checklist for parents that might help you (and your teen) talk about their challenges in school.
By Age 13, your child may be:
- Expanding their ability to think more philosophically about the future (i.e., how will climate change impact my ability to get a job in 20 years)
- Questioning and analyzing more extensively.
- Thinking systematically about all logical relationships within a problem.
- Using more complex thinking for individualized decision-making.
- Guessing about an outcome (making a hypothesis) before testing it out.
Age 13 physical development and motor skill milestones
Reassure your child about normal puberty changes without making them self-conscious. Small and frequent chats about puberty with or even just around them can help normalize this topic. Many 13-year-olds notice increasing strength during puberty, especially if they are involved in sports. On the other hand, some adolescents become less interested in sports or less active as they enter middle and high school and organized sports become more competitive. If your child falls into this camp, think about some fun ways you can encourage movement as a family.
Your child at age 13:
- May be showing some of the later signs of puberty, such as penis growth, darkening of the scrotum, larger muscles, voice changes, oilier hair and skin, and the beginning of underarm, facial, and pubic hair.
- Breast development, hair growth, and the start of periods (menarche) are common by this age.
- May experience a growth spurt.
- Will become increasingly skilled at sports, playing a musical instrument, or other hobbies requiring coordinated movement of big and small muscles.
- May temporarily seem to lose some balance and coordination during growth spurts.
Vaccines for 13-year-olds
At 13, your child should receive vaccines to protect them from the following diseases:
- Influenza (Flu) (every year)
- COVID-19 vaccine and booster according to current CDC guidelines.
If your child has missed any vaccines thus far, now is a good time for them to catch up. Your healthcare provider can help review the schedule for catch-up vaccinations.
Healthy eating and activity for 13-year-olds
Your 13-year-old may be busier with school and activities but strive for shared meals together as much as possible. Eating together helps teens become more intentional with their eating and gives your family time to talk with each other.
- Serve your child a well-balanced diet with protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Limit 100% juice, sports drinks, and other sugary beverages to no more than 4–6 ounces (120–180 ml) a day.
- If there are foods that you do not want your teens to eat, avoid bringing them into the home. That said, making certain things “off-limits” can have the opposite of the intended effect. Consider that all foods have value, and labels like “good,” “bad,” or “junk” can lead to unintended pressure around food.
- Take their suggestions, when possible, regarding foods to prepare at home. Let them in on meal planning, shopping and meal prep!
- Your 13-year-old should get at least 1 hour of physical activity every day. Not every child has to join a team or play a sport to be fit. Support your teen in finding the right physical activity that keeps them feeling happy and healthy.
- Your child should get between 9-12 hours of sleep every night. Biological changes make teens want to stay up later, but early school start times can cut sleep short. Keep TVs and electronic devices out of your teen’s bedroom to safeguard their sleep.
- Make sure your 13-year-old brushes their teeth twice daily, flosses once daily, and sees a dentist every six months for a cleaning and check-up.
- Eating disorders are common in teens, regardless of their gender. Body changes caused by puberty, social media, bullying, and sports involvement are all reasons your teen could be at risk.
Keeping your 13-year-old safe
These safety suggestions are guardrails to keep your teen safe and healthy. Sometimes it comes down to not sweating the small stuff when parenting a teen. Instead, talk with your 13-year-old (and co-parent or other caregivers) about certain non-negotiable behaviors to ensure their (and others’) safety. That way, your teen’s less than ideal decisions or missteps are near-misses and not crash collisions.
- Set a good example for your 13-year-old by always wearing a helmet when riding a bike, motorcycle, skiing, snowboarding, and in contact sports. Wear your seatbelt in motor vehicles. Talk to them about how wearing a helmet lowers their chances of a concussion.
- Protect your child from secondhand smoke. Talk to them about the dangers of smoking and vaping nicotine and marijuana.
- If you have a gun, keep it unloaded and lock the weapon and ammunition away separately. Regularly check the security of both. Guns are a leading cause of death for teens.
- Stay alert for symptoms of depression, which can include irritability, sadness, loss of interest in activities, poor grades, and talk of suicide.
- Look for signs of self-harm (cutting) – 15 to 20 percent of teens self-harm, and young people who self-harm are 3.4 times more likely to attempt suicide in the future.
- Peer pressure can lead your teen to make risky decisions. Know who your child spends time with (see questions below).
- Know where your teen is and whether an adult is present. Make plans with them for when they will call you, where you can find them, and what time you expect them home. Get creative for confirmation. “Text me a pic of you and Sara’s mom doing a high-five!”
- Create a rule that your teen needs to be involved in at least one activity. Teens who have a part-time job, belong to a club, or volunteer are less likely to get in trouble, spend less time on the screen, and develop lifelong skills for success.
- Review the facts about teen dating violence with your child. Approximately 1 in 3 teens in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner.
Healthy screentime for 13-year-olds
As kids age, they’re more likely to have (and increasingly use) their own tablets, laptops, or phones. It is not a fun job, but it is essential. Your 13-year-old needs your help making sure that screen time does not sacrifice sleep, physical activity, face to face interactions or other healthy behaviors. Easier said than done, but here are some starting points:
- Model healthy behavior, such as designated screen free time at meals and before bed. Put down your phone (out of sight) when you engage in conversations with each other.
- Have ongoing communication about digital citizenship and safety.
- Research video and computer games before letting your teen get them. Common Sense Media is a great resource.
- Teach your teen about safe internet and social media use.
- Talk about the unintended and potentially lifelong consequences of sexting.
- Review that pornography does not reflect safe, healthy, consensual sexual relationships but that it is normal for teens to be curious about sexual imagery.
- Have your teen do their video gaming in common areas so you can keep an eye on what and how much they are playing. Again, keep screens out of bedrooms. Talk to your pediatric provider if you feel like your 13-year-old’s gaming is starting to get in the way of the other parts of life.
- Provide a quiet place to do homework. Minimize distractions, such as TV and electronic devices
Conversation starters and parenting hacks for your 13-year-old
Even though your 13-year-old might not like it, parents or caregivers should be asking their kids about their lives every day. Pick some of these questions to help you figure out if they are experiencing anxiety, depression, or bullying. Be prepared for short conversations, especially when you bring up awkward or uncomfortable topics. Just remember, some conversation is better than none. What matters is that your 13-year-old knows that you are interested and want to connect.
Questions to ask your 13-year-old:
- What are some of the first things that you remember from your childhood?
- What’s the one thing adults don’t get about teenagers?
- Is bullying a problem at your school?
- Are drug and alcohol use a big thing at your school?
- When you feel upset or stressed, how do you help yourself calm down?
- What do you wish you were more motivated to do?
- What are the big things everyone is talking about at school?
- Who are your friends now? What kinds of things do you like doing with them?
- Do you ever wish you weren’t alive at all?
- I want you to be safe and feel safe during sex, always. What have you learned about consent in school?
When bringing up the bigger topics doesn’t seem to work, there are so many other ways to connect. You can try being physically present around them while they make a snack or on a walk. Dropping some small comments or questions while they are partially distracted can make it easier for them to open up, as it feels less pressured. Teens love to talk about their experiences and their friends, and no detail is too small.
Ways to help them grow and develop:
- Children who feel badly about themselves are more susceptible to peer pressure and make risky choices to try to fit in or impress their friends. Praise your teen’s accomplishments and provide support in areas where they struggle.
- Building confidence may look different than you think. Confidence grows when teens can trust their emotions and how they feel to make decisions. Supporting their feelings and decisions now goes a long way to being resilient to pressure later on.
- Cultivate a family attitude of body positivity. Never make teasing comments about their weight or the appearance of theirs or others’ bodies. Instead, focus on health and wellness.
- Explore some interactive games and learning tools with your 13-year-old to help build their financial literacy – life skills necessary to save, avoid debt, and even invest their money.
- Hold firm in your expectations for behavior, household responsibilities, , sleep, and screen time.
- Talk through your teen’s decision-making, helping them learn from mistakes. Avoid judgment or shame, and get curious about how and why they made the choices they did.
- Don’t be afraid to keep the conversation going when your child brings up a race-related topic. Ask them what they noticed and discuss it.
- Keep close communication with teachers, other school employees, and parents of your child’s friends, even if they say they’d rather you didn’t. Showing you want to stay connected can take a lot of different forms!
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