By Kate Coyne
Updated January 20, 2014 12:00 PM

After nearly a decade of celebrity, Kate Gosselin has been attacked for everything from her parenting skills to her paso doble. So it’s not surprising that she’s developed a thick skin – which comes in handy when she emerges from a dressing room during a PEOPLE photo shoot to model a midriff-baring white sweater, only to be met with some pretty savage criticism.

“Oh, my God, that is the lamest thing I have ever seen. Ew. Ewwww.”

“Take that off immediately. You look ridiculous. No no no.”

“I cannot believe how gross that is. Gross. You look gross.”

Kate, 38 and grateful to even consider baring her stomach after eight kids, just shrugs. She’s heard it all before, as recently as this morning over breakfast. It comes with the territory when your toughest audience is your 13-year-old twin daughters.

Mady and Cara Gosselin, who officially became teenagers on Oct. 8, have never been shy about sharing their feelings. Mady, in particular, became infamous for her outbursts during the heyday of the family’s hit TLC reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8, which followed Kate and then-husband Jon as they raised their twins plus sextuplets Aaden, Alexis, Collin, Hannah, Joel and Leah, now 9. When the show melted down along with the Gosselin marriage after Jon was caught partying with other women, the twins – 10 years old at the time – were old enough to grasp that their world had been shattered. “They felt it, and they’d react to it,” Kate says of the chaos caused by headlines about Jon’s wild nights or Kate’s diva antics. In the end, Kate says, she and the twins formed an “us-against-the-world” bond that helped them all heal. “Cara listening, Mady and I talking—it helped the three of us get through the ugliness. Things that happened with my divorce were hurtful, and there were many tears, but we got through it. They really are trying to work with me, even now when they have emotional moments.”

Fueled by adolescence, those emotional moments occur roughly every five seconds. During the shoot Mady blares One Direction through the studio’s sound system as Cara slumps into a chair, glued to her iPhone. But for all their exasperated sighs and eye-rolling, the girls are eager to speak up about the perception that being child reality stars means they’re headed for juvenile delinquency. “People expect us to be damaged,” Cara says. Mady agrees. “They think we’re supposed to be so messed up, like, ‘Ooh, the poor Gosselin kids, they’re going to be scarred for life, waaaaaah.’ Here’s the big news: We’re not messed up.” Adds Cara: “It’s so false. We’re fine. We’re better than ever, actually.” Ask them about their mom, and both grow even more animated. “She is so annoying,” Mady nearly shrieks. Cara, generally more soft-spoken than her sister, chimes in quickly. “But she’s annoying on purpose! Like, she does it just to bother us.” Mady explains, “Like, she says ‘spensive. I’m like, ‘Mom, it’s expensive. ‘Spensive isn’t a word! Stop it!’ ” Cara nods vigorously. “She totally does that just to annoy us.”

It’s the kind of mortification all parents trigger in their teens. Of course, the twins have experienced far worse. The darkest days of their parents’ divorce is still a topic that’s hard to discuss. “I don’t remember any of it. At all,” Mady says pointedly when the subject first crops up. But after a moment, she offers, “Actually, the stuff I remember now is stuff that I didn’t really see anything wrong with at the time … but now that I look back, I can see, ‘Oh, that wasn’t a really good thing.’ Like girlfriends. Lots of girlfriends,” she says of her dad’s string of ill-fated romances after his split from Kate. “Like, maybe that wasn’t so normal, to have someone new, like, every week,” she says. Cara laughs and adds sarcastically, “Every day. Every minute. Every second.” The two then fall silent before Mady lightens the mood. “I don’t remember you being around, Cara,” she says. “I just remember you wore really ugly clothes.” Cara quickly parries, “Well, you had really ugly hair.” Mady considers this a moment. “That’s true,” she says. “My hair was bad.”

Jon Gosselin has regular visitation with his children; last year he told People his kids were “very well-adjusted. They have their own friends and sleepovers and birthday parties.” But just months later, he claimed his kids had “developmental” problems and were unable to properly relate to their peers (see sidebar). Kate says the twins are well aware of the tension that lingers between their parents—but she’s certain they can cope with it. “They are figuring out stuff on their own,” Kate says of the ongoing drama. “I’ve realized that some of the ways I was trying to protect them could hurt them because they were hearing about things in school, so I had to learn to give them a heads-up when something’s happened. We’re walking a tightrope.”

Mady and Cara agree that divorce has been one of the more ordinary things to occur in their 13 years – which included becoming big sisters to sextuplets and starring on a hit show, after all. Weathering the emotions of the breakup with their mom and siblings, “I feel like it made us more normal in some ways,” Cara says. “We realized just because there are more of us doesn’t mean that we don’t have the same feelings that everyone has. We’re not that different than anyone else.”

In fact, it’s not reality TV or embittered parents that may pose the biggest problem for Cara and Mady down the line, but being outnumbered by their adorable younger sibs. References to the sextuplets (“Alexis is rabid. She is like a wild animal,” Mady snipes) are punctuated by groans. “Having six little kids show up all at once, that’s the big deal in our life,” Mady says. “And their messes, and their being annoying. I mean, I love them but … yeesh.” Lynne Kenney, a pediatric psychologist and co-author of Bloom: Helping Children Blossom, say kids with multiple younger siblings often grow up too fast. “They can be over-responsible, busy taking care of everybody else. It’s one thing to be a responsible teenager; it’s another thing to be an adult. You can lose yourself and get angry and bitter because your needs were passed by while you were taking care of everybody else.”

Kate concedes that the twins are “wise beyond their years,” but admits that at times their maturity has come to her rescue. “The other day I was beyond stressed out, and there was the usual bickering with them, and I just couldn’t take it. I said to them, ‘Please, can we not have the fighting today? I’m having a tough time. I really need you to help me out here.’ They both got quiet … and just stopped. Then they went above and beyond, putting away lunch boxes and helping with chores. I don’t have words for how much it meant to me.” Kate, who is not close to her own siblings, is grateful for that support. “My parents didn’t foster that with me, the idea of teamwork – where you look at your family and they’re your best friends and will stick up for you and be there for you for life,” she says. “I’m so proud that my kids have that.”

Both girls have thought about what it will be like when they have families of their own. Mady says she wants no more than two kids herself. “Two and I’m done. I have a big enough family already, thank you very much.” Cara isn’t as sure. “I think I might like five,” she says, as Mady howls in protest, “You’re crazy!”

Close as they are, the sisters quickly point out their differences. Vivacious Mady frequently cuts off the more serious Cara, which she tolerates – to a point. “You tell stories all wrong,” Mady says after interrupting Cara for the third time. “Like, if there was a bird out that window, you’d say it was a cow.” Cara replies evenly, “Just because I tell something from my perspective doesn’t make it wrong. You exaggerate everything. If there was a cow out that window, you’d probably say it was a unicorn.”

With her flair for the dramatic, Mady says she’d like to be an actress someday; Cara hopes to become a doctor. But both girls say they’d welcome a return to reality TV, in part because of the family that formed around them during filming as their parents’ marriage came apart. “We’d love to do it again,” Cara says. “We miss the crew, the people we saw every day. It was fun.” Less fun are some of fame’s after-effects—like fake Instagram accounts that people have created, claiming to be the girls. “This one person uses old photos of me and writes things like, ‘Thanks to all my fans!’ I would never say that,” Mady says heatedly. “People just lie,” Cara adds quietly.

It’s not a problem most teens will encounter. But in many ways, the girls are living refreshingly mundane lives – right down to the way they treat their mom. “They were going on a field trip the other day, and Cara insisted that there was this type of jeans she absolutely had to have,” Kate says. “So I ran all around town trying to find them, and finally I got them, in addition to the 2 million other things they had to bring. Later that night when she was packing, Cara comes into my room and asks if she can borrow my favorite yoga pants to wear on the bus. I said no, and she said, ‘Why don’t you just admit you hate me? It’s clear you totally hate me.’ After everything I’d done! I just sighed and said, ‘I think it’s time for you to go to bed.’ ”

But out of their mom’s earshot, the girls reveal what they really think. “Honestly? Our mom is the best,” Cara says. “She wants us to have everything, and she fights for that, and I love her for it.” Mady echoes the sentiment: “My mom is fantastic. She’s a better parent than anyone realizes.” Cara adds, “She really wants the best for us,” before Mady cuts in again. “She’s fabulous, Cara. That’s the word you want. Fabulous.” Cue eye rolls.

As the day goes on and a weary Mady rests her head on her mom’s shoulder, Kate looks relieved by the public display of affection. “Most days I think I’m doing well,” she says. “Then I’ll hear about how 15-year-old girls can be, and my blood runs cold.” Until then, there are new frontiers to explore. Cara has a “friend who is a boy but is not a boyfriend” and Mady is lamenting the fact that One Direction’s Zayn is engaged. Kate is prepared for what’s next. “Here’s what every parent wants – to see that your hard work and effort is appreciated,” she says. “My girls show me that they’re grateful at the end of the day, which means everything. We’ve come a long way.”