When Your Kid's Clothes Come From Mars

My child is 12 years old and is starting to dress in ways that drive me crazy. She got a babysitting job over the summer and used her money to buy two pairs of wide legged baggy pants. I told her she could get them under the agreement that she wouldn't wear them in public with me. Now she said she wants to dress in the grunge style and that really makes me crazy. I can't stand for her to dress like a slob, but I'm not sure how far to push my preference off on her or if I have any right to expect her to dress the way I think she should. What do you think?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

This is probably your first child, and so your first introduction to adolescence! You will soon become more tolerant of your daughter's budding self-expression. At twelve, you had better step back on the clothing choices, or you may be asking for rebellion in areas that are more anxiety producing than seeing your daughter in baggy pants!

Your daughter is showing initiative by not only earning, but saving her money to buy the outfits she wants to try on for character. Allow her the freedom to explore and make these choices. Trust that you have given her basic values that will help her make choices, but that she needs to not only express but develop her ability to make autonomous decisions. If you do not trust her to find her way with her wardrobe, how will you trust her with more significant life decisions? She is not an adult, but she needs to start somewhere. Think of her as going through a phase of "getting ready to become an adult woman".

By this age, your daughter should be making her own choices in the clothes she wears. And no doubt she is choosing her style based on other friends' wardrobes. So you will not have to worry that people will think less of you, if she dresses in this manner. Adolescence is a period of separating from you, and this is one way your daughter is expressing her individuality. Her actions will help you to separate from her, too. Though your reaction is understandable, you must try to see the world through your daughter's eyes more than your own in this situation.

Try to understand your daughter's world. As nonjudgementally as possible, ask her, specifically, what she likes about the style she is choosing. Acknowledge that she does have a right to chose clothes based upon her preferences. Do not put her down or berate her choices. Instead, acknowledge them as different than your own, and be curious about what these clothes mean to her, now. This is your opportunity to develop a relationship with her through her adolescence. Treating her disrespectfully now will only cause you to drift apart in the years ahead. And her teen years are not a time you want to lose track of her! She will more readily come to you for help if she needs it, or later reflect on what you have said, if you show her respect and curiosity rather than judgment and denigration. She may easily choose a very different style next month, but the important thing is that she is learning to make her own decisions.

The task of parenthood is to raise our children so that they are capable of making autonomous decisions by the time they do leave home. As parents we sometimes forget that this does not happen all at once, but gradually over the next 6 years. She probably will not be wearing these baggy pants at eighteen, but she may indeed develop an independent sense of fashion that proves very different from yours. Give her room to a "beginning adult". Accept that there will be differences and she will make mistakes along the way. Engage her in conversations which can expand with her adolescence.

As adults, we have had the opportunity to make our own choices and we pay for our mistakes. It is your daughter's turn to have a say in her life choices. Your 12 year old is just beginning to forge her individuality and show independence in decision making. She has honestly come by her own money to do so. She has earned the right to make this choice.

It is time to develop the parental skill of "biting your tongue"! Support your daughter's independence and her need to experiment in safe ways to explore and discover her identity. If you show her respect for her growing independence now, she will be more likely to ask for your guidance when it comes to the important life decisions coming up (sex, drugs, educational priorities).

Your relationship is changing! By all means talk with other parents who have children entering adolescence. Bring your feelings of outrage at her clothes to conversations with other parents, who will no doubt understand. But treat her with respect and curiosity and you may find a sense of humor goes a long way in helping you gain perspective on this period of your daughter's life.

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