Clothes are a very powerful way to communicate. They connote certain things about who you are and give specific messages—to express anger or sophistication, to flirt and indicate that you’re ready for a sexual encounter, or to show the world that you’re prim and proper. Clothes can be used to attract people or to repel them. It can also just be fun to experiment with clothes and see how it feels and what responses you get from other people.
So before you react too quickly when your daughter starts dressing trashy, it’s a good idea to get inside her head prior to jumping inside her closet. Take time to pay attention to your daughter. Really study her moods, her friends, her struggles at school, changes that are going on inside her as well as outside. Try to analyze what’s going on in her life that might suddenly make her want to wear trashy clothes. There are lots of reasons she might have chosen a change in her attire and her look, and these different reasons will prompt totally different interventions and conversations from you.
Here are some of the things you might discover…
1. She might be rebelling. If she perceives that you want her to be a perfect child, she might be showing you that she has a mind of her own and you cannot control who she is and what she does. A demand for perfection isn’t a good thing—kids know they can’t meet the expectations and standards you’ve set for them. It’s too much pressure to try to be perfect, so they turn in the other direction and rebel. And if she senses that you’re trying too hard to be the perfect parent, she might just rebel against that as well.
Several years ago I had a therapy client who started dressing Goth—dark clothing and black lipstick and nail polish. Her parents were oh-so perfect in every way, and she couldn’t handle the subtle demands from them to become the person they wanted her to be. Her clothes were a neon sign that screamed out, “I’m independent and I am not like my parents, so don’t even expect it from me.”
2. She might be crying out for help. Girls today are subjected to a great deal of stress, and peer pressure can cause such distress that girls become unhappy and depressed. They may not know how to talk about their troubles or they don’t know who to talk with, so they just cry out with their dress: “Will someone please notice me and help me?”
3. She might be identifying with a group of friends. If your daughter wants to hang out with a certain clique who dresses a certain way, she will want to dress the same way so that she fits in. Remember that girls can be chameleons—they will do almost anything to get that feeling of belonging.
4. She might be emulating you—her mom. This may be the time to notice how you dress, primp and behave. If you constantly dress provocatively or in a manner that attracts men, she may be imitating you. If you are dressed to the nines to pick her up at school, go grocery shopping or attend her sports events, she may have gotten the message that she needs to do the same thing. There’s a subtle but important difference between being dressed appropriately and being just a little too dressed for ordinary occasions, and your daughter will notice and respond to how you do it.
5. She might be ignorant of what’s appropriate. Some girls have been a tomboy much of their childhood or they’ve had other things on their minds. Suddenly, when the ‘tween or teen years hit, they know they need to dress better, but they just haven’t been paying attention and don’t know how.
Once you’ve identified the issues, you can now intervene and talk with your daughter.
Here are some things to consider for those conversations…
1. If her trashy dressing is not too offensive, let it go. Choose your battles and know you don’t have to win every one. Losing a battle on mildly trashing dressing might help you to win the war on other more important issues. When my daughter was in middle school, she went through a phase of wanting to wear an entire forearm of silver bangles. It looked ridiculous to me, but I let it go because it didn’t really cause any harm, and she soon outgrew it.
2. Read teen magazines with her. If you want to be your daughter’s mentor in the arena of dressing, then you’ll have to get some knowledge and expertise. She will know that you understand teen fashions and she is more likely to trust you about your opinions.
3. Go shopping with your daughter. Begin early and keep it going so that you have a long history of doing this activity together.
4. Start asking early on what she thinks about your clothes so you establish an attitude of mutual sharing and it won’t feel one-sided when you make comments or suggestions about her clothes. Asking her advice about your clothes creates a sense of team in respecting each other’s opinions.
5. Use negotiation and compromise as tools when her clothes get too out of line. If you allow her do something special in return for not wearing her inappropriate outfit, it’s a win/win for both of you.
6. Often girls are dressing for their girl friends—not for the boys. The peer pressure among girls is fierce, so they will dress anyway they need to in order to be accepted. I recently talked with the mom of a seven year old who told me that her daughter chooses her clothes each day depending upon the reaction of other girls in her class. If she gets a compliment on something, she will wear it over and over. If anyone ever makes a negative comment on her outfit, she’ll never wear it again. If the pressure for approval is this great at seven, we can only imagine how much it increases as girls get older. As a parent it’s important to be sensitive and understanding of this pressure and not demand that she wear something that will cause her grief at school.
7. She might be dressing too sexy—insisting on tight shirts and very short skirts. This is the time to have many conversations—a series, if necessary—with her about how her dress is making a statement about who she is. The guy she attracts won’t be the one she wants. It will be a guy who thinks he can have anything he wants from her. Tell her she’s too good to present herself that way because that’s not who she is inside.
8. She may be starting to wear lots of make up in dark and overdone ways. Rather than forbidding her to wear make up, tell her that you’d like to help her. If she wants to wear it, then ask her to let you show her how to wear it right.
9. Ask an aunt or other favorite adult to shop with her instead of you. If she’s been close to you, she may feel the need to separate and choose dressing as a way to show that independence. She may decide she won’t wear what you bought for her simply because you bought it.
It’s a delicate balance between being close enough to your daughter so that she feels comfortable talking with you and still giving her the freedom and sense of independence that doesn’t make her feel the need to rebel against you. If you’ve gotten off balance, take this time to talk with her and set it right again.
10. Get dad involved. Girls love the attention of their daddies and sometimes he can get through in ways that mom can’t.
The better your relationship with your daughter, the easier it will be to get her ear when it comes to her trashy dressing. Start talking with her early—before the sticky topics come up—so she already respects you and knows that you understand and care about her. Even if you don’t agree with her, you’ll be able come to some sort of mutual agreement.
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