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The Way You're Talking To Your Teen About Dress Codes Is All Wrong

06/01/2015 05:50 EDT | Updated 06/01/2016 05:59 EDT
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A couple weeks ago, I was invited by CBC Radio to speak about a rather controversial topic brewing amongst parents and their teens regarding teenage clothing choices. This subject was recently spotlighted after a 17-year-old high school senior in Moncton, New Brunswick, made a statement by wearing a full-length halter dress against school policy, exposing her shoulders (including both bra straps), to which she was told by the school's vice principal to cover up. In response, the subject wrote a three-page letter voicing her feelings about the hyper-sexualization of females in society and most notably states that if a boy at her school gets distracted by her back, he should be "...sent home and practice self-control."

The opinions that flooded in afterwards were divided, to say the least. While on one hand some parents believe that allowing their children to experiment freely and make mistakes contributes to their development, many more seem opposed to it. Statements such as, "Save it for the nightclub," "School is a place for learning, not a fashion show," and my personal favourite -- "This psychiatrist doesn't know what she's talking about" -- were prevalent throughout several of the comment sections online. But the truth is, regardless of my 15 years of experience with youth mental health, and regardless of the numbers of opinions given by parents of varying backgrounds, when it comes to dealing with the teenage brain, we are on a completely different playing field.

Teenagers are at a developmental phase where they're in the process of creating and asserting their own sense of individual and social identity, which for them is done through experimenting with how they express themselves. This is evident through their ever-changing opinions, lifestyle choices, beliefs, morals, and manners in which they present themselves, with clothing being one of their primary tools of self-expression. All done in a bid to answer the age-old growing pains questions of "Who am I as a person? What are my beliefs? Who do I relate to? Who do I want to become? And how can I express that to the world?"

Since teenage brains are literally neurobiologically different from adults, coupled with their fluctuating hormones, the way they process information also differs greatly from how we may process the very same things. This creates a situation where, when told not to wear something deemed inappropriate for that particular environment, while an adult may understand that it is simply a fashion issue within that specific circumstance, a teenager may perceive it on a chemical level as a personal threat to their entire identity and independence. As a result, they can become fiercely protective and hypersensitive to any potential threats made to their autonomy and are more likely to push the limits in response.

We're already seeing this today with girls challenging gender inequalities and the sexualization of the female body -- the notion of being able to wear what they want despite anyone else's reactions. As a result, many young women are voicing their anger through blogs centered around bashing "rape culture." An example of this way of thinking can be found in our subject's letter where she writes, "...we can no longer wear the clothing we feel comfortable in without the accusation and/or assumption that we are being provocative." Whether or not society agrees with these girls, we should applaud their initiative to address an issue that is so deeply prevalent today.

Now, I feel we are in a conundrum. As our subject also points out in her letter, we are often teaching our kids to be individualistic, strong, and opinionated, yet when that happens to conflict with our personal choices, we tell them they're wrong, disobedient, spoiled, and to just listen to the rules because we, the grownups, "say so." And as you know, when has that ever gone over well?

Especially in today's youth culture with their high exposure to blogs, social media, Google, YouTube, TV shows with often very adult content, they are beginning to strongly question everything more than the previous generations. Because we are currently experiencing the largest generation gap we have ever known, we need to make more of an effort to evolve our methods of communication.

Yes, rules and boundaries are important to have, but it is equally as paramount that we evolve the way we discuss those rules to form them with our children, not just for them. In fact, it is evident in her letter that our subject does understand why the clothing restrictions exist at her school, but her main issue is that she doesn't understand how the rules apply to her -- so it is our job as the adults to help bridge that gap. Not by spouting off a list of reasons that was handed down to us in a similar fashion and stating that's the way it is, but by having an actual discussion that is open to change.

Instead of expecting our children to simply comply to rules without further explanation, parents should take a balanced approach by showing respect for their teenager's decisions, explain why the world may not think like they do and allow them to join the conversation on the same level. As highlighted in a study done by Massey University based on theories in A. Sullivan Palincsar's review Social Constructivist Perspectives on Teaching and Learning, peer interactions with others of equal status and shared perspectives are more likely to "bring about cognitive development" in youths, than interactions with authority figures. In other words, when there is cognitive conflict between our children and those they perceive to be on an equal plane in terms of openness, understanding and communication, it actually results in a constructive exchange of ideas and exploration of different viewpoints in a collaboration rather than backlash.

We want to teach our children to have strong opinions and stand up for the things they believe in, yet it is also our responsibility to teach our children to understand and respect why rules (and eventually, laws) are made and how they apply to them. We need to move away from treating our teens like they are incapable of understanding "adult matters" because the truth is they are living in a very adult world, whether we like it or not. Although explaining things to a teen may require a little more creativity, patience and understanding, doing it the right way will not only foster closer relationships and higher levels of respect that go both ways, it'll increase cognitive development and hopefully, produce a future society that isn't afraid of making changes.

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