EXPERT Q&A

What is the best way to speak to my preteen about how she dresses?

Having a conversation about how your preteen dresses can lead to a larger and even more important conversation about bodily autonomy and consent. CareNectar and child development expert Martha Tyler shares tips for navigating this discussion with your child.

SAVE
Featured image

Question

I have an 11-year-old daughter who recently started wanting to dress in revealing clothing—far more revealing than what I think is appropriate. I don’t want to simply say no without further conversation, especially since she sees other kids her age wearing these types of clothes. We starting having conversations about what to do and how she feels if people look at her in certain ways, but beyond that, I’m at a loss. I think this is opening a can of worms that I’m not sure how to handle. How do we go through this as a team?

Answer

It is so hard to see our little ones grow up, especially when we don’t think they are ready for what’s to come! I can completely understand how stressful it can feel to navigate when your daughter thinks she is ready for a next step—like more mature clothing—and you’re not there yet. Like so many things with parenting, the clothing is really just representing the tip of a huge, metaphorical iceberg. Your daughter wanting to dress in a more mature way could be for many different reasons. Let’s break the possibilities down together:

  1. She may be rebelling. Girls especially are under so much pressure these days to be “perfect” in so many different areas. They are just coming out of a year of isolation and so they are eager to break away from their family unit. The “work” of her age group, developmentally speaking, is to push boundaries and move away from her family unit and towards her friends. Take a look at your expectations of your daughter and see if you think there are areas that you’re putting unnecessary pressure on her to fit your idea of who she should be. If there are any areas you can loosen up some control over her schedule, her academic expectations, her extracurriculars, etc., please give her a little more breathing room.
  2. She may be trying to bond with her friends. I don’t know about you but my social skills feel rusty after a year of quarantine. Imagine just learning new social skills and then having to take a year off. How anxiety provoking it must be for your daughter to rejoin her peers and friends in school and out in the world. As mentioned above, developmentally speaking, her work is to make connections with her peers. She is hardwired to seek out that sense of belonging with her friends. If her peers are dressing in a certain way, it’s going to be extremely difficult to convince her to be on your team and not dress like them. It might also cause more rebellion later on to restrict how she can dress at this moment. If there are clothes that you can both agree on and maybe find a compromise between dressing her like a little girl and like a full grown woman, try to find those. Maybe she gets to wear a shirt with little shoulder cut outs instead of spaghetti straps? If you can drop the rope on this power struggle, it will save you more rebellion down the road.
  3. She may be dressing like an adult she admires or her own mom. Consider how the important adults in her life dress. Kids model what they see in the world. Again, this is a bid for connection and not something to be punished. Examine how the adults in her life dress and see if she’s getting any unspoken fashion tips from them.

I hear your concern about how others look at her. I hear your concern that she’s moving into a phase in her life that will last for perhaps the rest of her life. She is going to start being in the male gaze and that is hard and unfair. The responsibility to keep her from being sexualized as a child should be on adults and not on children, but that isn’t the world we live in. Your worry is reasonable and understandable. However, we know that how a girl or child dresses actually does very little to prevent unwanted attention. No matter how your daughter dresses, she doesn’t deserve unwanted attention.

Teaching About Consent

The best way to help protect your girl from this danger is to teach her bodily autonomy and consent. 

  • Teach her that no one should touch her body in a way that she doesn’t want.
  • Teach her that she doesn’t owe anyone affection or physical contact.
  • Teach her to listen to her intuition when her gut tells her that a person isn’t safe. Talk about what that feels like in your body. For me, my hair on my neck and arm raises. I feel like I want to run. I find my mouth gets really dry.
  • Teach her that adult strangers should never need help from children. If an adult asks her for help tell her to find a trusted grownup right away.
  • Teach her that it’s okay to say no to an adult.
  • Teach her the phrase, “my body, my choice” and follow through with that.

All of these steps will help keep her much more safe than keeping her in more childlike clothing. These will empower her to feel more confident and listen to her own intuition when it comes to danger. So often we teach children (particularly girls) that other adults’ comfort and access to their bodies for hugs and affection is more important than the child’s comfort. Teaching her it’s okay to say no can help dispel this notion. Here is an article about bodily autonomy and consent.

In conclusion, try to find a compromise on how your child can dress so that she can still fit in with her friends but that you still feel comfortable. There’s a middle ground here and keep in mind that she’s literally biologically wired to want to fit in with her friends. For the very real fear of the world sexualizing her before she is ready, the best way to protect her is to empower her. For more information on ways to keep her safe, the book The Safe Child Book is a great resource!

Meet The Expert


Martha Tyler

Martha has her Masters in Education and is a certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator. She has worked as a sitter, nanny, tutor, or teaching artist over the past 20+ years. In addition, Martha has hosted a child care podcast, Chronicles of Nannya, for several years. She is also the co-founder of Compassionate Childcare LLC and is thrilled to be able to share her experience, knowledge, and resources with CareNectar!