Allison Keating answers your queries about life & relationships
Question: I am a dad of two girls aged 11 and 13. They are super kids all round — they work hard at school and do lots of activities. The problem is that I think some of their clothes are totally inappropriate. The older one asked to go on a shopping trip with her confirmation money and came back with a load of what I would call ‘trashy clothes’.
Short shorts with rips that show most of her behind and belly tops. To be honest, she looks ridiculous. Now the younger one is wearing them too. My wife agrees that they are awful and trashy but refuses to ban them, saying that they are only kids and if we come down hard it will be a mistake and they will hide things from us in the future.
The thing is, I have seen men leering at them and I know how men think. I am concerned that they are attracting danger. It is my job to protect my daughters and I want to put my foot down. Am I wrong? And is my wife right?
Allison replies: Wouldn’t life and decisions be so much easier if it came down to situations being right or wrong. Life is simple, complex, and nuanced as are our relationships, especially when navigating the developmental need in adolescence for personal expression — often through dress, make-up or hair — balanced precariously within being a concerned parent aware of the world that we live in.
I understand both your perspectives and your daughters’ as well. Here’s the simple part, you want to protect your daughters and they want to fit in and be the same as their friends. The complex part is that as adults we know life isn’t as clean or clear cut and very little is black or white, good or bad and as a young adolescent, they don’t have the experience of knowing this. It might make family conversations colourful as the young brain can be idealistic, and their thinking isn’t as nuanced as their brain hasn’t developed that skill yet. They will be frustrated with you as they aren’t aware of the layers of complexity that you are unfortunately privy to as an adult.
What I’d suggest is to not make it a battle of wills that will inevitably turn into a power struggle which won’t work out for anyone. Instead, see this as a genuine opportunity to open the door to important conversations that invite everyone’s opinions and views into consideration for a real discussion to happen within the safe boundaries from your position of being the adults and parents.
As a realist with three daughters, I am by no means underestimating the challenge in these conversations. As a grounded optimist, these conversations might be transformative and sow solid foundations so that they will come back to you with their own struggles, worries and fears. This is an inclusive conversation. Setting the tone is key to setting up the foundation for the future. Be mindful of the language used within prickly conversations when emotions are running high. Anything that feels personal or derogatory will be met with defence and it will be shut down before it even begins.
Share how you feel privately with your wife about how uncomfortable you feel about the clothes. This is a safer option and is another immensely important conversation that needs to be had at a wider societal level as to why this is. I have noticed that it is difficult to buy normal shorts for girls, so parents who aren’t happy buying the ‘short shorts’ can be left scratching their heads.
It’s important to note that this is not an issue in the boys’ clothes department, resulting in me chopping up jeans so the shorts are normal shorts, much to my children’s disapproval of what they then deem ‘granny shorts’.
As a psychologist, I see this as a major societal issue wherein the corporate over-sexualisation in the ranges and types of clothes available for young girls and adolescents are inappropriate and in the same section it can go from PG to over-18s from one rail to the next. From a wider perspective, this isn’t an easy fix but one that needs to be explored. The conversation starts at home, but it’s worth realising the struggle is wider than just your house, it’s within the expectations that are being set as normalised ideas within retail and society.
Understanding and naming their concerns may be the place to start. Starting from a place of empathy and understanding will soften any immediate brush-off from them feeling that you don’t understand. A possible way to start the conversation could be: ‘I understand that you like your clothes, but your mum and I aren’t as comfortable. I understand that you want to fit in and be the same as your friends and we are on your side, even if it doesn’t feel that way to you. I was wondering if we could have a chat about how you find it as well and if we could find somewhere in between that will work for us all.’
After gaining an understanding of what it is like for them, you can let them know what you are most uncomfortable about, say for instance the shorts and why, being mindful of their ages. This can be referenced in a healthy way in that you are so proud of them and that you both think they are super kids. Setting healthy boundaries that allow for everyone’s voice to be heard and for some healthy compromise gives space to work through what can be a tough time for them as well.
Empathy connects, and that’s the key here that you want this door to stay open. Empowering your girls to feel autonomy over their own bodies and how they feel about themselves is so important while bringing in some space for them to question the status quo as well. The beginnings of this conversation will set the tone for many more complex conversations to be nurtured and developed as they grow and change.
Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org