What to do when your pre-teen wants a style makeover.
There’s a time to let go, and a time to say ‘no’.
Parenting is an endless exercise in change. From day one, it seems, as soon as we adjust to something it’s on the move again.
As the teen years approach, however, the stakes start to change. A child’s sphere of influence shifts to open up to the wider world, and personal style and expression take on a whole new significance to many kids. It can be tough on parents to know what to do when they blink for too long and their preschooler is suddenly on the precipice of adolescence and pleading for permission to get a septum piercing.
Just like in the early days of parenting, it’s important to find reasonable opportunities to say ‘yes’ to your kids. As many as possible, really. Now, “reasonable” is subjective and our culture and values affect what we categorise as such, so if you’re struggling to know where to draw the line here are some points to consider.
How permanent is the change?
Style changes all the time (take a look back at your middle school or high school photos if you need to be reminded of this), and the likelihood is that your young teen will have at least a few versions of their own style over the next few years.
So, are they draping a length of chain with a padlock around their waist? Wearing more black? Waking up early to style victory rolls into their hair and eyeballing their grandmother’s costume jewelry? Experimenting with power-clashing? Whatever the aesthetic, clothes are really an innocuous form of self expression. Even if it’s a new look, or one you don’t personally find pleasing, it’s best to leave them to it. Clothing will come and go and in terms of personal style make-overs it’s the least permanent of all.
Hair is another not-too-permanent arena for self expression but this can be hard for some parents to remember. I promise you though, it does grow. Youth is likely the safest time to experiment with wild hair because professional life is not yet upon them (though I’m a good example of the fact that some people never outgrow this particular mode of aesthetic fun). Funky colours and unique hair cuts can make a big difference to anyone’s look and it’s a great opportunity to allow your child to make a real change that will just grow out over time. (Don’t forget that colours and cuts can be corrected too.)
Piercings shouldn’t be written off without genuine consideration. It’s a more drastic change than the first two examples but depending on the type of piercing it really can be considered temporary.
Right now septum piercings are very popular, and while this is one of the easiest piercings to fake with a clip-on, the actual piercing is really non-invasive as the tiny scar that may be left if it’s removed would be tucked away. Some piercings are more likely to leave scars than others, and some have higher risks than others based on location. Something to consider is that if your child is keen on a piercing, it’s possible that they may try to do this on their own. Whether that means physically piercing themselves or seeking help from a friend, or finding a shady piercer (who, if they’re willing to pierce minors without parental consent, may also be disinterested in universal precautions and sanitation practices), doing it alone comes with serious risks. Infection, scarring, communicable diseases like Hepatitis and HIV and more are all risks your child may not be aware of. Look up online reviews of tattoo and piercing studios in your area then go have a chat with a well-respected professional about what your child is asking for. A professional piercing that’s well taken care of isn’t so different from a standard earlobe piercing.
Where are your feelings coming from?
Seeing your child growing up and exploring their own style brings so many emotions. It’s thrilling, it’s demanding, and it can cause a sense of mourning. We’re faced with the very stark reality that the childhood years are coming to an end, and I don’t imagine anyone is prepared for how quickly that happens.
Perhaps when you were younger your own parents restricted your personal expression, and like so many parenting tools it’s being replicated without you realising. It could be that you’re worried that not only your child but you as well will receive judgment for your child’s appearance. Maybe it’s such a huge departure from how you envisioned your child’s look that you’re experiencing a sense of loss.
It’s also a good idea to ask yourself about your own barometer for what’s considered trendy, edgy, and past the line. My first piercing, foray into hair dye, and tattoos took place when all of these things were still shocking. It was a major statement. Now we see bold, electric hair colours and nose piercings at PTA meetings often enough that it hardly ruffles any feathers. Depending on where you live, it may be more unusual to find people of all stages of adulthood without any tattoos at all.
Are your feelings rooted in outdated ideas about gender expression? This is an important piece to consider as well. Resist the temptation to police how your child wants to express themselves when it comes to their gender. Subverting traditional ideas about gendered clothing (and hairstyles) can be a tool for personal exploration and it can also be a fashion choice (and more). Kids today are growing up in an era of unprecedented discourse about gender, presentation, and the arbitrary lines we’ve drawn around how we perform our identities. As was true for generations before them, their aesthetic choices can be a tool to reflect shifts in cultural understanding that accompany their generation. Rather than trying to change that expression, ask questions that allow you to understand your child better.
Take some time to challenge your ideas of what’s drastic and really try to get to the bottom of what you’re worried about.
When it might be time to say ‘no’.
Hearkening back to the beginning, it’s all about being reasonable. As we know about parenting, though, providing boundaries, structure and rules is paramount to having secure and considerate kids. As much as there are many ways that pre-teens can express themselves without any harm (even if it’s a bit uncomfortable for their parents), there are ways our children need our experience and understanding of the world to make choices that won’t hurt them — or others — in the name of self expression.
If your child is wearing clothing with hateful, racist or otherwise bigoted messaging it’s time to have a serious conversation. There may be cases where young people don’t realise the origins of the messaging they’re wearing, or possibly that they perceive it as a bit taboo but fail to grasp how harmful the messaging is to others.
Allowing youth to wear clothing that in any way condones violence or objectification of women and any marginalised community is particularly troubling because doing so makes parents complicit about these real social issues. Kids follow our lead.
Another area to watch out for is cultural appropriation. Many stories have appeared in recent years that talk about the harm cultural appropriation inflicts on people whose culture is being flattened for the sake of a fashion statement. If you find yourself wondering ‘what’s the harm?’, that’s a cue to look into it and learn a bit more. Dreadlocks and bantu knots are two hairstyle examples, and many clothing retailers have come under fire for carrying garments depicting sacred prints or imagery, particularly Navajo designs. Teaching your kids this kind of cultural literacy and consideration is valuable. Encourage them to do some research into these trends and seek out voices of the people whose cultures are being represented in fashion.
Keep the conversation open.
If you oppose to something your child wants to incorporate into their new look, dig deeper into your discomfort so that you can understand where it’s coming from, then have a conversation. If you’re able to express your concerns from a well-considered perspective (should any concerns remain after you unpack what’s going on for you in the first place), your young teen will be a lot more likely to hear what you have to say.
They may not have thought about the fact that the new piercing they’re hoping for will interfere with their ability to play their sport, or that they may experience real prejudice (or cause real harm) out in the world based on their new aesthetic. Your concerns may not always deter them, and you may hear some reasons that change your mind as well. It’s worth being open to that.
If your response to something about their new style is a hard no, be open to explaining why, but be clear that you’re firm in your position. Then perhaps you can discuss alternatives that you can support.
At the end of the day, it’s a good investment.
The teen years are prime time for self-discovery and experimentation. Allowing an outlet for these style changes, which are harmless, can stave off more drastic pursuits down the road. You will also demonstrate trust and acceptance of your young person, and this will encourage your child’s self-confidence. Besides, the more freedom you give them to express themselves now, the more fun you’ll all have when you look back on pictures in twenty years!
Enjoy your child, and who they want to show to the world. You may even be inspired to shake things up yourself along the way.