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Ask a Professional: Teen girls and clothing

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Ask a Professional: Teen girls and clothing

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Ask a Professional: Teen girls and clothing

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My daughter is almost 16 and tends to abide by the Free the Nipple ideal. I don’t wear a bra a lot myself, but it’s not obvious with what I’m wearing. She doesn’t care if nipple shows, cleavage etc. At times it goes too far. And then there is her love of wearing a bra and nothing else, as when I picked her up from a friend’s place just now. I am accused of promoting rape culture every time I raise objections. Any tips on settling reasonable boundaries? I think she is an exhibitionist; she thinks I’m horrible. We live in a small town with an unusually high number of sex offenders and I do feel protective. I am generally a patent somewhere between authoritative and permissive.


Dear @Ellie67 

It's a difficult situation - you’re speaking out of concern for your daughter, but it sounds like it does not feel that way for her. It must be hurtful that she responds to your concern with hostility.

It’s really common for teens to begin to push boundaries and dress (and act) in ways that go against what their parents would find acceptable. This can be part of exploring their own identity and working out what their own beliefs are about acceptable behaviour.

It sounds like the main thing that concerns you is the risk of sexual assault. Living somewhere where there are a lot of sex offenders must be really frightening, and of course you’d want to keep your daughter safe.

Although it may feel like her dressing in revealing clothing puts her more at risk, research actually indicates that clothing isn’t a significant factor in sexual assault. Some things that are more likely to be helpful in keeping her safe are encouraging her to make sure she and her friends are looking out for each other when they are out or at parties, making sure she knows to keep an eye on her drink and not accept a drink from someone else, and making sure she is educated about consent@Janine-RO's suggestion of self defence classes could also be another way to engage her. 

Given your daughter's statements about rape culture, she may also object to a more general discussion about staying safe if she feels like she is being held responsible for the action of others. For this reason, I would suggest starting by acknowledging the unfairness of it - in an ideal world no one should have to be concerned about these things. By genuinely acknowledging this unfairness she is more likely to be open to talk about what can help staying safe.

I don’t want to dismiss your concerns about her clothing. There can be other reasons you might be concerned about what she wears, as the clothes we wear can impact the impression we give people, and different clothing can be appropriate to different occasions (for instance, an outfit which is suitable for the gym wouldn’t also be suitable for attending a wedding).

Boundaries around this aren’t the same for every family. It can be helpful to explore acceptable clothing as part of a broader conversation about family rules, in order to make sure you have a shared understanding of boundaries and the consequences for breaking rules. There’s a guide to family rules here. However, it’s important to be aware that this approach is most successful when there is some flexibility and teens are allowed to have some freedom to make decisions, so you might find it helpful to make a list of which boundaries are most important to you (clothing may or may not be one of these), and which you are willing to compromise on.

I also encourage you to look for opportunities to talk to your daughter about things which are going well, or topics you agree upon, in order to help keep the lines of communication open and foster a positive relationship.

Lastly, parenting a teenager can be stressful! It’s worth also thinking about what you do to look after yourself - whether it’s a hobby you enjoy, talking to a friend, or even just finding some time to sit down with a good book and a glass of wine.

Best wishes,


Linda is a psychologist experienced in working with people across the lifespan, including teenagers and their families, in a variety of settings, and is ReachOut's Clinical Lead.