How to avoid power struggles over clothes
Getting dressed should not be a battleground, and most of the time you don’t need to get into power struggles about clothes. Power struggles over clothes can result in the following side effects for our kids:
- Low self-worth
- Poor sense of self
- Underdeveloped autonomy
- Damaged parent-child relationship
- Mental health issues, including eating disorders
- Perpetuating unhealthy social norms
The first and most obvious reason for this is that your child’s body is their sacred property. It is theirs to own and care for. If we try to dictate what they wear, we can get into dangerous territory in which we cross personal boundaries, reinforce toxic beauty standards, and promote negative messages that impact self-worth. Since these are risk factors for eating disorders, we should avoid controlling or criticizing clothing choices whenever possible.
Getting dressed is personal. And it’s a chance for your child to safely explore and develop their identity and autonomy. Children who have a strong sense of self wear clothes that they enjoy, that are comfortable for them, and that allow them to express their individuality and/or membership in a group. These children grow into strong individuals who are not prey to the whims of beauty standards, the thin ideal, or other unhealthy societal messages.
Most of the time you don’t need to get into power struggles over clothes. You rarely need to tell your child what to wear. Instead, prioritize their comfort and preferences. Let them find and express their own individual style.
You don’t need to control clothing (most of the time)
It’s true that in some situations parents can make suggestions about kids’ clothes. But these are extremely rare. And clothes shouldn’t be a place to have power struggles, but rather a discussion, compromise, and agreement. Keep your boundaries and remember that their body is theirs, not yours.
Sure, younger kids may need more guidance about clothing in certain situations. But in the vast majority of situations, parents can and should let kids make their own choices about what to wear with minimal guidance.
Most of the time getting dressed is an issue you can leave up to your child. And the less you say about their choices, the less likely they are to rebel or struggle with perfectionism or identity issues.
Why not comment on what your kid wears?
If you’re thinking about making a comment about what your child is wearing, take a breath and think about why you’re doing it. What is your goal? Many times parental control over clothing comes from a desire to protect our child from social shaming. We believe that if we dress them the right way they will be liked by their peers and other adults.
That’s a worthy and understandable goal.
But the problem is that the most important person your child wants to be liked by is YOU. And when you try to control what they wear, they, unfortunately, begin to believe that what they wear is more important to you than who they are.
Another reason parents comment on kids’ clothing is because they are afraid that they (the parent) will be judged by friends, family, and society. In this case, your feelings are valid, but you need to manage your behavior and avoid crossing an important boundary between parent and child. You should not ask your child to solve a problem that is yours to handle. If you worry about being judged, figure out how to process and deal with your worry without imposing it on your child.
What we do matters more than what we say
You never have to say it or even think it consciously. But if you pay a lot of attention to what your child wears they will interpret your interest and attention to clothing as something that makes a big difference to how you feel about them.
Kids don’t hear what we say. They hear what we repeatedly do. So even if you say you love your child unconditionally, if you are commenting on their clothes often then you are showing them that appearance is very important to you.
They will either seek your approval by focusing on their appearance or they will rebel as soon as they can to prove to you that they get to do what they want to do with their bodies. Either way, they are building an identity based on what they perceive to be your perception of them rather than learning to look inside and learn about who they are.
Clothes are not the most important thing
The most important thing for parents to do is validate that their child is worthy and lovable exactly as they are. And we want them to build their own sense of self rather than a reflection or rejection of what they think we want them to be.
Of course, we live in a society that has expectations, structure, and rules. And in some cases, there are rules about what kids need to wear.
But most of the time we don’t need to have rules about clothing. Most of the time this is an area where we can step back and let our kids build their autonomy. Doing this builds confidence, self-worth, and self-esteem. All of these are protective against eating disorders and other mental health conditions.
When we let kids dress themselves, they grow up stronger and more resilient against peer pressure. And that’s a very good thing.
Think back …
Many times when we think back on our own lives, we can remember how frustrating it was to have parents tell us what to do. Maybe your mom liked to dress you in her style – not yours. Maybe your dad bought you dresses that were itchy and scratchy but you had to wear them anyway. In most of those cases, you probably felt at least somewhat controlled and dominated. That’s because what goes on your body should be up to you.
When a parent gets into power struggles over clothes they need to evaluate their values and consider the lessons being taught. We all want to raise kids who have a strong sense of self. And that comes from experimenting and listening to themselves – not others. Personal style is personal, so we want to give our kids space to develop it themselves.
Maybe you loved having your parents tell you what to do. Maybe you love fashion magazines and following beauty standards. You get to do whatever you want with your body. But think carefully about your own child. Do they like it when you tell them how to dress their bodies? If not, then that matters. Their opinions and preferences matter as much as yours do.
Just because we liked something as kids doesn’t mean that’s how we should parent the kids we have. And just because we like to wear a certain style or have a vision of how we want our child to look doesn’t mean our kids should be compliant to our wishes.
Our kids may be young humans, but they are still humans with their own identities, preferences, thoughts, and feelings. And when we try to take away their most basic rights of how to dress we could impact our relationship with them … and their relationship with themselves. Repeated power struggles over clothes are not worth the risks.
How a clothing power struggle begins
Power struggles begin when parents try to control what their kids wear, either overtly (wear this/not that) or covertly (are you really wearing that?). This can damage a child’s sense of autonomy and self-worth. Here are some examples of how power struggles begin when it comes to clothes:
- That’s not flattering
- Wear this instead
- You look awful in that
- I laid out your outfit for today
- Don’t wear that
- Go change your clothes
- You can’t wear that
- That’s hideous
- That’s inappropriate
- Are you sure you want to wear that?
- Maybe you want to put on some makeup?
- I’m not sure that’s the right choice
- Do your friends dress like that?
- Can I make a suggestion?
- [wide eyes]
- [eye roll]
Note that you don’t need to say a word for your child to know what you’re thinking. Our kids are intimately tuned in to what we think about them, so pay attention to your facial expressions as much as your words.
What to do instead
Next time your child comes out of their room wearing something you disapprove of, avoid the power struggle. Instead ask yourself:
- Is what I’m about to say about them or me? (think deeply about this – it’s usually about you)
- Is what I’m about to say kind and respectful? (would I say it to a coworker?)
- Is what I’m about to say supportive of my child’s individuality and autonomy?
- Am I imposing rigid and outdated social norms on my child, and if so, why?
- Am I trying to control my kid’s clothes because I’m uncomfortable with their size, shape or gender?
- Does what I’m about to say show my child that they are lovable just as they are?
Asking these questions is essential to raising a strong, confident child who knows who they are, what they like, and trusts their parents love them for those things. It’s never too late to give kids the freedom of dressing according to their unique preferences. And it’s a huge and worthwhile gift that we all have the power to give.
But what about values?
Perhaps you believe that you should control what your child wears because your values are important to you. For example, maybe you value modesty and your daughter prefers short shorts and tight tops. Maybe you value order and your son prefers baggy pants and ragged t-shirts. Or maybe you value femininity and your child is non-binary and prefers gender-neutral clothing.
To handle this I suggest that you hold one value above all else: dignity. To possess dignity is to have absolute, intrinsic and unconditional value regardless of appearance or actions. This means that each and every person, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, size, weight, race, income, intelligence, appearance, etc., deserves to be treated with respect and as an autonomous thinking person.
When dignity lies at the heart of your family values you recognize that while you can have rules, expectations, and structure, each person still gets to behave autonomously in key areas such as dressing themselves. This can be seen as the dignity of self-expression.
You can also separate your personal values from your family values. While you personally may have values that guide your behavior or how you dress, your family should have just 3-4 shared values that guide your household. For example, dignity should be more important than modesty, order, and gender roles.
But what about the dress code?
If your child attends a school that enforces a dress code, I suggest that you talk to your child about the dress code and tell them what you expect in clear and simple terms. Then let them handle it. In other words, if they get in trouble for violating the dress code, that will be a natural consequence that is theirs to handle.
Dress codes disproportionately target females, higher-weight individuals, people of color, and trans kids. In many cases, your child’s rejection of being “dress coded” may be a sign of a healthy self. I’m not saying they should break rules regularly, but dress code rules are rules they can safely test without lifelong consequences.
Unless they are at risk of expulsion for violating the dress code, this is probably something you can leave up to the school to handle. It’s their rule, let them enforce it.
Most of the time your child will either decide it’s not worth getting in trouble or find creative ways to skirt the dress code. Either way, this is a healthy and appropriate way for them to learn social boundaries without you policing them.
But what if it’s a signal?
Sometimes when a child suddenly changes their style it could be a signal that something is wrong. Clothing can be communication. So I suggest you tread carefully here and focus on feelings, not clothes.
Pay attention to how your child is behaving and other things that are going on for them. If you believe they are facing a challenge, then how they dress is just a symptom of the challenge. Address the cause, not the symptom.
Maybe they are lonely, overloaded, stressed, grieving, depressed, anxious, or experiencing poor body image. If you focus on the symptom (clothes), you often create larger issues. If you focus on the cause, you may be able to help your child feel better.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.