I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this!! Whether it is the color of their hair, a new piercing, boys with long hair, girls with really short hair, clothes too baggy, clothes too tight or some other “teenage fashion” – it happens. You wake up one day and look at your teenager and think – I can’t believe they are going out looking like that! As a parent you may feel angry, embarrassed, frustrated or just plain exhausted with their quest for independence. Before we go any further, let’s dissect this a bit more…so that you can figure out what is driving this emotion for you. For some parents, having their teenager dressing or grooming differently than how they were raised feels disrespectful. For other parents, it is another example of how their teen is going against what they taught them and it just plain makes them mad. And let’s just be honest, for some, it is embarrassing. Parents don’t want to show up for a holiday with their teenager who has blue hair and have to answer the questions of judgmental relatives for the next 5 hours and understandably so! For some parents, how their teen looks feels like a reflection of the quality of their parenting so there is fear that they will be negatively judged if they have a child who does not just blend in with the “norm”.
Finally, in some instances, parents fear for their teenagers safety which tends to be more common for girls but can apply to boys as well. Some parents become concerned that their daughter is wearing clothes that are too revealing or which may lead others to believe they are much older than they are. Although, sadly, this is often what is promoted by the media – in such situations you should intervene and try to educate your teenager about the potential dangers of dressing in a provocative manner. Unfortunately, there ARE people who will prey on teens who dress in a way that (whether intentionally or unintentionally) gives off the message that they may be promiscuous because they are willing to reveal a lot of their body with how they dress. If your teenager is in this category and does not seem to be responding to your efforts to non-judgmentally educate them about any dangers or who are putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations, you may want to have them speak with a professional who can help you both understand what is driving this behavior.
However, for most teenagers, this is just part of their process of growing up and teenagers take their “differentness” to varying levels. I was recently working with a parent who was concerned because her son was letting his hair get too long. She felt like it would negatively affect his college interviews and was honest enough to also admit that it was embarrassing for her because her family gave her a hard time about it. What was happening, however, was that her stress about her son’s appearance was causing her to have a lot of negative emotions towards him which he resented and therefore he started pulling away from her. Through coaching, we were able to come up with a specific plan for her to re-engage with her teenager. It involved her not addressing his appearance at all (which was not easy!) and to focus instead on what they were doing together, how he was doing in school and at home with chores, and just simply enjoying one another’s day-to-day company and interactions. It was amazing for her to see how powerful this hair thing had become in their lives. He had become defensive in all their interactions because he knew she would bring up his hair, and she became angry and frustrated because he was not willing to hear her pleads for him to cut his hair. The hair became the center of their relationship and resulted in their not communicating, enjoying being around one another and both were feeling pretty bad about it.
When the hair subject was taken off the table you would be amazed at what happened! I want to be clear that this did not happen overnight but it did happen much quicker than my client may have imagined. She stopped talking about the hair. We came up with some great strategies she could use to help her let go of this topic (even though she still wanted him to cut his hair) and refocus on their relationship. After about a week or two, they began engaging more and talking more. Her son was able to see that they could have a conversation that did not turn to her criticizing his hair so he was more willing to engage and spend time with his mother. Then the real kicker happened – his FRIENDS started telling him they did not like his hair long and that they thought he looked better with it a little shorter. He also realized that it was somewhat of a pain to take care of as it continued to get longer and that he was not looking as good as he may have wanted with the long hair. Then…TA DA…he showed up at home after school one day with short hair one day. My client had the sense to not make too big of a deal about this – she simply told him he looked handsome and then focused on how the rest of his day went. She knew not to make this the focus because there was a control piece to this whole thing. My client’s son was trying to exercise his independence by having his hair the length HE wanted it and when she was insisting it should be short – he only wanted to keep it long. Now, it was his decision to have it short so she was very wise to let him keep it as his decision and not say anything like, “it’s about time” or “I told you that you looked better with short hair”.
You see, often times this is a phase that teenagers go through but the phase can have a valuable purpose. Some teens do this to rebel from their parents, some to just try to exert some control in their lives which sometimes feels out of control to them and for some, they are just trying on a new look to see how it feels and to see if it helps them define themselves. As hard as it can be, if there are not safety issues at play, parents are wise to let their teenagers go through this process. Don’t define them solely by their looks and continue to appreciate them as a whole person. You can be honest with them and tell them that it is not your first choice of a look for them (because they are going to pick up on this anyway) but that you still love them just the same and want them to dress and look in a way that is comfortable for them. And then…most importantly…show them this with your actions. Accept them for who they are and don’t make them feel “less than” based on their looks.