In their march toward independence and self-discovery, it is not uncommon for teens to be at odds with their parents from time to time. School work, social obligations, media usage, and household responsibilities are common areas where teens and parents can disagree. One area that can be challenging for parents is their teen’s clothing choices.
Because clothing provides a perfect platform for self-expression, sometimes parents can struggle with their own feelings towards their teen’s choices while also wanting to support their teen’s autonomy and self-exploration. As with many issues surrounding parenting teenagers, the topic of what your teens choose to wear can be sensitive, with the potential for confrontations and hurt feelings. However, with a good dose of humor, patience, and understanding this touchy subject can also lead to greater connection.
More than just fashion
First, it’s helpful to consider some underlying aspects of this issue. Teenagers are in a critical phase of self-discovery, where they explore their identity and assert their independence. Clothing is one of the primary ways teens express themselves.
Teens are also going through a time of heightened social scrutiny and are driven by a need to be accepted by their peers. On top of this, they are bombarded by the images and fashion trends they see on social media - influences that are often out of parents' control.
In the current culture, there is more acceptance of all body types (“body-positivity”) and criticism towards comments or messaging that shames, judges, or ridicules a person’s body size or dress. Both of these developments can help teens nurture a positive self-image to feel confident in their own skin. By embracing diversity and learning to accept themselves and others, teens foster flexibility and say goodbye to the rigid images and roles that were once the norm.
Where things get tricky for parents is when they feel the choices a teen makes about their clothing seem inappropriate, especially in certain settings such as school, and when parents simply dislike what their child is wearing. Often parents worry that what they consider as inappropriate clothing may have negative effects on their teen, such as assigning labels, reinforcing negative stereotypes around sexuality, receiving unwanted attention, or an unhealthy focus on appearance and superficiality.
What can parents do?
Since discussions around your teen’s clothing choices could easily result in a power struggle, it’s best to take a nonconfrontational approach. So, unless you believe your teen’s health or safety is involved, try being open to allowing some freedom around your child’s clothing choices. If you are particularly concerned that your teen isn’t taking into consideration how their clothing choices might affect their day-to-day experience with others, it’s better to try and help your teen explore how they might feel if people treat them differently or react in certain ways that might make them feel uncomfortable.
The following are some tips to keep in mind:
Acknowledge that a person’s self-expression is important and sometimes dress codes and society’s rules about clothes can be arbitrary, sexist, and biased.
Get curious and ask questions about what your child likes about a certain outfit. Explore where they like to shop or what influencers they follow. Parents may learn that their teen is simply trying to figure out their own style or, alternatively, instead of feeling empowered to make their own choices they may feel pressured to dress a certain way. If this is the case and the conversation is going well, parents can encourage more dialogue by asking, “What do you think would happen if you wore what you wanted to wear?” If your child expresses fear or some kind of anxiety, parents should empathize with what their teen is going through with statements like, “That’s really tricky,” or “It sounds like you are really frustrated.” When teens feel understood, it strengthens the parent/child relationship and increases the likelihood that they will heed parent’s advice or intervention at a later time for health and safety concerns.
Avoid being critical and judgmental as it can cause distance in the parent/child relationship - making it harder for parents to guide their teen if necessary at a later time. Instead, focus on comments that are factual and that address the function of a piece of clothing. For example, you could say, “It’s snowing and windy today, so you might be really cold in a tank top.”
Keep in mind that, developmentally, your teen is learning about who they are and what they like and don’t like. Their choices about what they wear may change day by day, week by week, and even year by year. It’s best to take the long view and be patient as they explore their identity. Offering your compassionate and non-judgmental availability will not only build an enjoyable closeness with them, it will also help them gradually gain an internal sense of self-worth and security - the most valuable resource for healthy decision making in all areas of their lives.
Speaking with your teen about their clothing choices can be awkward and a bit fraught. However, it can be helpful to view discussions about their choices as opportunities to foster an environment where your child feels heard and understood. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “The most powerful force impacting the kind of life your child will ultimately have is how you treat him/her and the degree to which your child feels valued by you. Building a positive, close relationship with your teen is the foundation for their happiness and success. The deep inner well-being that this creates helps your teen make good choices for themselves in all aspects of life because it feels good.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions for School-Age Children and Teens: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2012.