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Clothing Clashes, Housing Decisions, and Financial Management

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

During early and middle adolescence (roughly ages 12-17) parents and teens often argue about clothing. These conflicts are rooted in the developmental tasks associated with this period: teens establish a personal identity, assert their individuality, strive to fit in with their peer group, desire sexual and romantic attention, and declare their independence. Personal style and clothing choices are closely linked with each of these developmental agendas. Therefore, it is little wonder that clothing choices often become a battleground. These clothing clashes frequently revolve around families' values and finances. Some clothing choices annoy or anger parents because the teen's choice offends their parents; for instance, clothing emblazoned with foul language. Other clothing choices spark debate because the style of dress is inappropriate to the situation; for instance, wearing sexually suggestive clothing to religious ceremony. Third, some clothing styles, reflecting the most recent fashion trends, are simply far too expensive for many families and represent frivolous or wasteful spending.

The challenge for parents of adolescents is to achieve a balance between permitting their teens to make their own decisions about personal style while simultaneously establishing some boundaries or limitations about what is, and what is not, acceptable. The adage, "Choose your battles wisely" is very applicable in these circumstances. There are times when it is important for parents to set limits, and times when parents should do their best to accept that their children's clothing choices will not always please them.

The school dress code is a boundary that parents should insist upon. Since every school's dress code is different, and often changes year-to-year, parents should become familiar with the dress code and preferably have a written copy available because this will serve to limit debates about what is included in the dress code. Enforcing the school dress code ensures that teens do not go to school in an outfit that will get them sent home, which would directly impact their education and interfere with their learning opportunities. Furthermore, teens may be guided to understand that the principle behind a dress code is to demonstrate respect for others. While youth may see nothing wrong with their particular style of dress, they may be encouraged to consider their choices from another student's point of view. Clothing which distracts or offends other students interferes with their learning opportunities.

Conversely, social situations may require more flexibility and parents can afford teens more latitude and discretion. Still, there may be times when parents will need to set limits. Some teens, particularly young women, may experiment with wearing sexually suggestive clothing with low-cut necklines, short skirts, or extremely tight garments. Every family will have different values about what is considered an appropriate or inappropriate manner of dress, but parents should establish and enforce clear boundaries about what type of clothing is unacceptable in public. By communicating these minimum standards of acceptable public attire, parents help their youth to understand that the way people choose to present themselves to others is a reflection of their own self-worth. Clothing choices should not communicate a lack of self-respect, a complete disregard for others, or suggest the absence of personal dignity.

So what's a parent to do when their teens' clothing choice doesn't technically cross the line, but is still offensive or distasteful to parents' sensibilities? Under the motto, "choose your battles wisely" parents will "wisely" accept they will not always be pleased by their children's clothing choices. On these occasions it is helpful to remember that clothing is a reasonably safe way for youth express their individual identity and to find acceptance among their peer group. If clothing choices do not violate the established minimum standards of acceptable public attire, but parents still find the choice distasteful, it is often wiser to keep this particular opinion to oneself. However, parents can use these opportunities for conversation starters, rather than argument starters. Parents can do this in several ways. First, even an offensive outfit usually has some redeeming quality that can merit a sincere and genuine compliment such as the fit, color, style, or creativity: "That outfit fits you very nicely," or "That color looks great on you," or "I love the way that belt coordinates so nicely with the colors in your blouse." Next, consider asking a question that communicates curiosity and interest in the youth's point of view. For example, ask about the inspiration for a style, or ask how she decided to choose that particular belt. These sorts of questions can initiate an interesting conversation. When parents utilize a positive, non-critical approach, and express a willingness to understand their children's opinions, parents may also be able to start conversations (rather than arguments) that encourage children to reflect upon their clothing choices, and to consider the way these choices may negatively affect other people's opinion of them.

For example, suppose Nathan was getting ready for a family birthday party. He comes down the stairs, dressed and ready to go, sporting an artistic tee-shirt that contains a questionable phrase that might be offensive to some people. Since Mom finds this phrase offensive, her first instinct is to frown at him, tell him how disgusting the tee-shirt is, and order him to go upstairs to change his shirt. This response is likely to start an argument. Instead, she decides to pay Nathan a genuine compliment by telling him she thinks the shirt's background design is eye-catching and "cool." This could encourage Nathan to talk a little about where he found the shirt or about the artist who designed it. Mom could then ask him to explain what made him decide to purchase this shirt, which could challenge Nathan to think about what exactly he was hoping to convey by wearing this shirt. As the conversation continues, Mom could mention that some people attending the party (such as Great-Grandma) might not appreciate the artistic meaning of the shirt and may misunderstand his intention for wearing it. At the end of this conversation, Nathan may decide to change his shirt so as not to offend Grandma, or he may decide to wear the shirt and is prepared to explain the shirt's artistic meaning to Grandma.