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If Your Teen is "Normal",
Why Does She Look So Weird?

QUESTION: I have a 15-year-old daughter. She is an honor student, in the top 10 percent of her class and she has never been disrespectful toward us. However, I hate the way she dresses. It is weird! She has green hair and black lipstick! She is sloppy and her hair always looks dirty. The guys that are attracted to her look like freaks of nature. She is really pretty, but she is so intent on looking freaky that I'm embarrassed to be seen with her. I have read many articles on raising a teen and they all tell me that my teen is normal but I still feel upset. If she's normal, why does she look so different?

ANSWER: Your daughter is clearly bright and a fairly cooperative teenager. She follows rules at school and at home. The only area she is causing you to stretch on is her individual taste in appearance. Perhaps you should consider yourself lucky!

Adolescence is a time of separating from parents and yet depending upon them simultaneously. Competing needs for independence and dependence makes this period an inevitable hotbed for conflict in the family. Teenagers handle this transition in their families in a variety of ways, including experimenting with dress that defies parental standards. Can you remember a time when you acted or dressed in a way that your parents couldn't understand?

It is your daughter's job to express her individuality. She must find a sense of "belonging" that encompasses her originality. Perhaps this is what her current dress style satisfies. The fact that she has followed the rules for success academically is an indication that she will likely show good judgment when it is time to apply for a job she wants to get by dressing appropriately! Rest assured that you have done a great job in giving her good values and no doubt real common sense, to boot.

Your responsibilities as a parent do change in adolescence. You must make way for her to transition into adulthood. This does not take place overnight, nor is it painless. Consider her a "beginning adult." Your job is to be interested, (not critical) about the emotional meaning of her unique taste. This is a time you can get to know her better, or become alienated. Your own approach to her may spell the difference.

Enter into a discussion with your daughter about her tastes in clothes and makeup. Become truly interested in what she does get out of dressing in this way. It is fine to share your own different feelings and tastes, but do so in a manner that makes room for her individual identity, rather than squelching it. Explore what her life is really like.

Times have changed, and it will be interesting to contrast your experience of high school with her own. Do not make the assumption that they need to be similar. Explore her experience of her social life and her friendships and what they mean to her. Seek to understand the meaning of her "unusual dress." It may be that it stands for a particular code of ethics or signals a sense of "belonging" to a group. She must want to make some kind of statement, but you will never find out what it is if you approach her with disdain instead of respect.

It is at this time that we as parents must show our children what we want them to value by doing it. It is very tempting to reflect annoyance, criticality and a true lack of respect for your teenager. (After all, aren't they acting ridiculous?) Instead, try treating them with increased respect. Take the attitude that they will open up to you, as you relate to them in a positive and curious manner, rather than a deprecating one.

Consider also that you may gain spiritually, from experiencing some humility during this period. Your ability to react with increased neutrality instead of acute embarrassment will most probably prove satisfying to you in the end. It will also help you bridge the "gap" with discussions that keep you connected during this time of change your daughter is experiencing. In this way, you will remain available to her should she need to turn to you for help.

Adolescence challenges our growth as parents to develop into that which we preach. I found this to be a period in which I had to learn increased patience and tolerance. It takes time for teenagers to develop the strong sense of self necessary for handling adult life. It might help to keep in mind that a chrysalis is not really a very pretty sight. But the butterfly that eventually emerges is remarkably different!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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