When "What Should I Wear?" Gets More Complicated

Negotiate a set of fashion "dos" both you and your daughter can live with.

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When teens start dressing provocatively

When 13-year-old Sarah goes shopping with her mom, they always clash over clothes. They bicker over too-tight tank tops and wearing sequins to school. Before the day is over, Sarah deploys her most wounding words: “Mom, you know nothing about fashion. You’re too old and dowdy.”

For teens, clothes mark the line between “nerdy” and “cool.” Thanks to Ariana Grande and other teen pop stars, adolescent fashion has become increasingly sexualized. “When girls start dressing provocatively, they send a message,” says Sarah’s mother, “but most don’t understand the implications.”

Girls with a strong sense of themselves can parry pressure to conform and dress fashionably without extreme looks. But the girl searching for an identity may put too much emphasis on defining herself by her clothing.

Where Adoption Enters the Picture

In puberty, children begin a natural separation from parents. The adopted adolescent has an extra distance to travel. Not only must she declare independence from her adopted parents, she must consider biological parents she may not even know.

“What pubescent adoptees do know about their birth parents is that they were sexually active,” writes Elinor B. Rosenberg in The Adoption Life Cycle. In working out her own identity, the adopted child may embrace or reject this bit of family history—and dress accordingly.

In the story of Sarah and her mother, there is another factor common to adoptive families: Sarah’s mother is older than the parents of most of Sarah’s teenage friends and older than Sarah’s biological parents. “In their early years, children rarely notice that Mommy has gray hair,” says Sarah’s mother. “But adolescents can be brutal in judging a parent’s looks.”

What’s Really Going On?

What are your daughter’s classmates wearing? If your child dresses more conservatively than others, you may have to rethink your objections.

If, on the other hand, you see that your child is dressing at the extreme end of the spectrum, you should ask yourself why. She may be relying too much on sexuality to give herself an identity, or she may feel she needs to do this to make friends.

Rather than provoke battles with a zero-tolerance policy, work with your daughter to forge rules you can both live with. This goes for boys, too. If you find that these rules are being ignored, it may be time to take the issue to counseling.

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