My 17-year-old daughter wants to wear all kinds of clothing that range from offensive to dangerous. Short shorts and skirts, bared midriff, suggestive sayings, shoes she’ll break an ankle in… it seems like I can’t even predict what she’s going to look like when she goes out.

I want her to wear Levis jeans like she used to: she comes home with a pair that looks like it was painted on. I was always taught that a natural look for hair and makeup are best: her hair might be any color on the neon spectrum at any given time, and you can’t even see her face under all the makeup. I think wearing a dress for services is important: she prefers to dress like she’s a member of some other family.

I don’t want to control her every decision, but I’m afraid that she’s going to be seen by someone she might want a job from later and have ruined her chances, or that she’ll get into a situation that’s over her head. I’m worried that men will think she’s older than she is. That she doesn’t have enough life experience to know how to protect herself.

I try to set some rules for clothing, but then I find out she’s sneaking around, putting on different clothes at her friends’ houses. I don’t know what the other parents are thinking, but I shouldn’t have to let their low standards dictate how my family dresses! Am I right?

I can hear how upsetting this is to you. Once you had a daughter who you recognized and it made your heart glad. Now, in her place is someone who looks a bit like her, but is acting secretive and doing things that conflict with your values. And that girl that you nurtured so gently is nowhere to be found. It’s almost as though she left without saying goodbye. There’s bound to be some grief.

Of course, you expected the teen years to be difficult, right? I’m assuming so, on some level, because parents of teens are always saying how difficult they are. But perhaps your expectations only went skin deep? Maybe you were thinking: “yes, but Marigold has been such an easy child. I’m sure our problems will be nothing big, a short answer here, a bit of snappishness there, we’ll point it out, she’ll apologize as she always has, and next thing you know she’s off to college.”

If the challenges you’re having with your daughter right now are greater than you expected, then you’re also grappling with disappointment. How is disappointment usually handled in your family? When one member is disappointed with another, what happens? Do they tell them? Do they get angry? Do they make excuses for them and suck it up, keeping their disappointment to themselves? Do they say nothing to the one who is disappointing but become short tempered with someone else? How was disappointment handled when you were growing up?

Disappointment is truly one of the more challenging emotions most families deal with. And the behavior of teenagers brings issues parents have managing disappointment right to the surface. Teens are hard wired to want to try things that are different, novel, even risky. The adolescent age 15-21 has one developmental task: educators and mental health professionals call it “up and out.” It’s their task to build up enough energy to launch themselves into the big, scary world and begin to function as an adult there, providing for themselves and making an adult contribution. Most of their behavior occurs because this is what they need to accomplish.

Sound scary? If you really think about it, it is. And yet, fear is the last thing anyone wants to project when they’re taking on a new and challenging task. Healthy teens know this instinctively. So many of their actions are bold and reckless. And as with anyone doing bold and reckless things, they’re also very self-focused, which can be worrisome to a parent as well. Your child has decided they won’t feel their fear, so you, as parents, feel ALL the fear: theirs AND yours! This is why my heart goes out to parents of teens. I’ve been there. And it is scary.

To your question: no, you don’t have to let anyone dictate your values to you. But the clothing we wear reflects more than our values. There are cold-blooded killers who dress in the same conservative suits as those whose values you admire and seek to emulate. Sure, “the clothes make the man,” except… when they don’t.

You’re worried that your daughter will run into someone she may want a job from in the future and hurt her chances dressed as she is? Well, for one thing, there’s as good a chance when she meets this phantom future employer that she will impress them with her bold expression of self and make a valuable contact. It may have been true fifty plus years ago that children entering the workforce were likely to be working for their parents’ peers. Today? Much less likely. Her future first boss may be only a few years older than she is and twice as edgy. You simply don’t know. Take a deep breath and acknowledge what you’re feeling: fear. It’s okay. 

The most important aspect of the parent-child relationship between the ages of 15-21 is keeping lines of communication relatively open and maintaining their trust in you. You, as parent, will be the one feeling the fear (anywhere from just your share to both your shares). It’s okay to let your child know when you are afraid, and why. You’re transitioning as well, to an adult relationship with your child. You would be straight with an adult about your feelings concerning them, so be straight with your teen. But respectful, as you would be with an adult.

You notice an outfit that complies with the law regarding indecent exposure but sparks fear over the attention she’ll get? Take a breath. Own the fear, silently, for yourself. If you need to say something, try:

“I get worried when I see you dressed that way, we’ve talked about why. But I trust that you know what you’re doing. And you can call me if you need a ride from anywhere for any reason. Know that. I love you. Have a nice time.”

Then? Wait up. This stage won’t last forever either. With love…

Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels.

Published by Anne Lindyberg

Anne Lindyberg has a master's degree in school psychology and advanced training in Satir Transformational Systems. She is a former school psychologist, mother of two adult children, and loves living in the cornfields of southeast Iowa with her beautiful Toller-Dog, Lila and Sassy the cat.

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