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Tweens and Teens

Making Sense of Your Teen Daughter's Transformation

How to Encourage Individuality Within Age-Appropriate Boundaries

May 01, 2009
Magenta hair streaks, skinny body-hugging tank tops, jeans' waistbands that ride too low, sexy videos, and pop diva gossip—the trappings that used to belong to only older teen girls is now alive and flourishing in the early adolescent group as well. If you feel like your pre or young teen daughter is 13 going on 19, you're not alone. More and more parents are waking up to find their preteen daughters at the bathroom mirror brushing on mascara and humming suggestive lyrics from the latest hit song.

The basic part of this transformation is normal. Most girls begin to mature physically before boys (and are maturing earlier than ever due in part to the growth hormones in animal products). These girls naturally become increasingly absorbed in themselves, their developing figures and their looks in general. As their world expands through outside activities, their relationships with friends become increasingly important and fitting in with peers becomes a priority.

But these days, following the crowd through popular fashion may include such things as body piercings. And singing along to the radio menu involves a more sexually charged vocabulary than was encountered in generations past. There's no doubt about it, today's media-saturated preteens are exposed to (and want to expose) much more than most parents are comfortable with.

What can parents do to tame these cultural influences and provide appropriate guidelines for their physically maturing daughters? Realize your power and use it. The outside world may be feeding your kids something you don't like, but you are feeding them, too. You have a strong influence over what your children wear and listen to and watch—and how they perceive it.

Without denying your children access to radio, television, and print advertising, there are steps you can take to balance out the sometimes-frightening messages that they are bombarded with on a daily basis:

Focus inward. The world of "looks" holds much of its appeal because it is concrete and offers easy solutions to visible problems. (Got a pimple? Dry it up. Lifeless hair? Perm and color.) These questions have easier answers than "Why do I feel shy?" or "Why doesn't my dad visit more often?" Help your daughter become familiar with and value her inner self so that she can feel confident there as well. Without burdening her with financial or marital problems, act as a model and share simple examples of your own feelings, questions, struggles and joys. Help her build confidence, value her inner strengths, and foster her spiritual and emotional life. Introduce her to the miracles and potential that lie within her.

Set limits. Your daughter may be able to surf the net, ride her bike to the mall, and "nuke" her dinner without your help, but you are still the parent. Talk with her about appropriate dress, make-up and music. Set rules about what will and won't be tolerated in your house: "Shirts that show navels do not go to school." "Eye shadow is for school dances only." "Songs with graphic lyrics won't be played in this house."

Balance the media messages with your own. Give your daughter a strong moral base to counter what she's picking up from movies and TV. She's getting constant tips on how to be "hot." She needs guidance from you on how to grow up healthy and safe. Model morality and appropriate behavior, and talk to her about your spiritual values. Don't feed the problem. Using sexual innuendo and renting R-rated movies with young teens encourages feelings and behaviors they aren't yet ready to handle.

Keep it simple. Half-hour lectures usually get tuned out, so make your comments brief and directed to the situation at hand. When you see an advertisement or television show in which a young teen is dressed in sexually suggestive clothing, be specific rather than moralizing. "That girl is dressed way beyond her age; some guys will take that as a message that she wants to have sex," will be heard more clearly than, "Kids today look like trash." The first comment will educate your daughter about your morals and the reality of the situation. The second will be taken as a criticism and encourage her to reject whatever you have just said.

Combine forces. Discuss your concerns with other parents and make a decision to uphold certain policies that you agree upon. If Jaclyn isn't allowed to wear lipstick until she's in high school, then it's not as hard for her best friend to accept the same limitation. If your young teen's school doesn't already have an appropriate school dress code or restrictions on bringing Ipods and cell phones to school, talk to administrators about setting limits. If enough parents are concerned, policies can be made or changed.

The best use of "parent power" involves providing thoughtful input based on your own strong set of values, and consistently enforcing limits, while keeping communications open at the same time. The goal is to provide a solid, safe base for your daughter to grow from. While she may balk at your "old-fashioned" ideas, she will also feel protected by them. Communicate that your policies are based on your concern for her, not on an arbitrary or blanket dislike of the adolescent world.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 25 and 29. She can be reached at 847-782-1722.

Lisa M. Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24.
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