Should Parents Care What Their Teen Wears?

Sep 7, 2018 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Preteen Girl in Dress Deciding What to Wear from Closet
Image: Digital Version/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

"I can't believe she goes out dressed like that." 

"I wish she'd dress more appropriately."

"She's showing off far too much skin."

These are all things I've heard parents of teenage girls say. I'm still a few years away from that stage with my own daughter, but I've seen firsthand how much tension can be caused by a teenager's wardrobe. 

But how much does the cut of a top or the length of a skirt actually have to do with the tension? Instead, could it be caused by the parents' approach to this thorny issue? 

More: What's the Right Age for Kids to Wear Makeup?

Absolutely, says Carrie Krawiec, licensed marriage and family therapist, and it largely comes down to the language you use. 

"A parent can avoid turning this into a body-shaming issue by not shaming their child," Krawiec tells SheKnows. "Parents should avoid criticism, name-calling and other shaming language, like, 'You look like a tramp,' or 'You look ridiculous,' and stick instead to directions based on the parent’s expectations."

Krawiec also warns against using arguable terms like "that is inappropriate for public" and recommends sticking instead to unarguable statements of parental direction. "For example, if you say, 'That is inappropriate,' your child is going to list 20 peers as examples of times it was appropriate," she says. "Parents should instead say, 'Change those shorts now, please.' If your child balks or resists simply apply a consequence like a privilege loss such as taking their phone for 15 minutes." 

According to licensed psychologist Julia Simens, the solution to avoiding — or at least minimizing — arguments over how your teen dresses is allowing her to make choices early on in life and live with the choices she makes. 

"It can start early with simple, everyday things," Simens tells SheKnows. "Even backpacks can provide a family-empowering moment. At back-to-school time, parents can sit and argue with their kid over what backpack to pick, or they can let her make a choice and live with the decision. Parents should remember the more they talk as a parent, the more they are trying to justify why their child should make the parent's choice into their child's own choice."

Body shame and body pride are often products of the words that come out of a parent's mouth, adds Simens, because we all learn social conditioning from our childhood. "When parents talk to their children — of all ages — they must have both an exchange of factual information and emotions," she says. "For example, you might say, 'I know your BFF wears cute, very short summer dresses, but it makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable when you wear them to our extended family dinners on Sundays. This week, I'd like you to wear a longer dress or pants to that dinner.'" 

More: Teaching Your Teenager Responsibility Doesn't Have to Be Torture

OK, so we know what we should and shouldn't be saying, but what about how we actually feel about the short shorts and off-the-shoulder tops? You shouldn't beat yourself up for a visceral reaction to your teen daughter's wardrobe choices because they probably come from a place of concern and are likely to be based on your own life experience. 

"Many moms probably react based on what they have learned through their lives and don't want their daughter to go through any of the sexualization or pain [caused by unwanted attention] they did," licensed psychologist Dr. Jennifer B. Rhodes tells SheKnows. 

While the #MeToo movement has triggered crucial conversations and provided a much-needed (and long overdue) platform for victims of sexual harassment and assault to speak up about their experiences, it may make parents scared that their daughter will be sexually assaulted. "It's important to remember that there is no correlation between what a woman wears and the likelihood of sexual assault," says Rhodes. 

Your gut feeling might be that you don't want your 16-year-old daughter to dress like Kim Kardashian West, but this could be an opportunity to give your teenager a powerful gift: teaching her to own her sensuality rather than run from it. 

"Clothing choice is one of the few things that a teen can control, and learning how to control her own messaging through her personal style is a phenomenal tool to learn at a young age," says Rhodes. And yes, that applies even if her personal style isn't what you'd choose for her. Because, ultimately, the choice isn't yours to make. 

"Having open conversations about how other people react to the way your daughter dresses and whether she likes it or not can help her process whether the style is a good fit for her," says Rhodes. Kim Kardashian West "is an example of a woman who has changed her personal style to match her own development. Her owning of her body and her choices that pertain to how she presents it is a powerful lesson, whether you agree with it or not. Kim doesn’t apologize for who she is."

Krawiec agrees that conversations can be powerful teaching tools. 

"Ask your child questions about their fashion choices," she suggests. "Who else dresses this way? Peers? Celebrities? What is her inspiration? What are the upsides? What are the downsides? Has she ever been in a scenario where she was dressed one way and then felt uncomfortable? Under- or overdressed? Wishing she had worn something else? Have her or her friends ever been treated differently or in ways that suggested someone was judging, discriminating or sexually attracted based on their clothes?"

How you respond to her answers is crucial. "Stay calm and resist the urge to jump all over any answers in anger or anxiety," says Krawiec. "Instead, keep gauging your child’s awareness, responsibility, maturity and peers and give reinforcement, encouragement and positive attention to healthy thinking and problem-solving. Consider opportunities to help your child earn the privilege of some fashion choices based on good behavior and compliance with your rules."

More: You Can Now Track Your Kid's Every Move — but Should You?

Let's face it. You and your teen are always going to lock horns about how she dresses now and again. It's completely normal. But it's wise to choose your battles carefully, advises Simens. Save them for the big things like safety and how your kid treats others. Because they're far more important — and life-changing — than a tight-fitting dress.   

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