You Can’t Wear That: Fashion Advice for Parents Raising Teens

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Without fail, the only time when we are in a hurry to get out the door for a day full of appointments and errands, my teenage son comes upstairs ready for the day looking like a tornado. I have no idea where he found the tattered navy blue gamer shirt I threw out months ago, the one with a hole in the neck that barely fits him, or how he managed to get white toothpaste on the back leg of his black basketball pants (at least today he is wearing pants). His hoodie of choice is a shade between black and navy blue, two times too big and has a hole in the top pouch pocket,“You can’t tell though and it holds my phone fine.” Fortunately, he remembers his mask, there is no inappropriate smell on him, or worse, a thick cloud of Axe in his wake, and surprisingly his hair is perfect, until then he walks in front of me then I am pretty sure something is living in the back of it. Classic pandemic hair. Business on the front, lounging in the back.

I sink with dread, knowing that this will be the very day that I will see the President of the United States, Channing Tatum, Melinda Gates, along with every single person I know and ever knew in my entire life and probably thanks to this human heap of a walking laundry hamper next to me, I’ll miss my one and only dream shot of being featured on the cover of Mom Vogue Magazine. Naturally, I do what any good mom would do in this instance, I breath deep, send up a prayer of penance for doing this very thing (or something even more scandalous) to my mother, and then drop everything and scream at him to follow me back to his room to begin a 45 second make over! Three minutes later we re-emerge and are out the door in his Sunday best. He is annoyed and uncomfortable, however I am pleased knowing that I should secure this year’s mom award for sure!

While Dylan is moping and fidgeting on the drive that morning, I explain to him in my Carol Brady voice that as wrong as this sounds, “Image is everything.” People will treat you at the level at which you show up. Put your best foot forward and you will typically be received that way. Roll out of bed and show up, and people who are busy (and usually busy people are successful) won’t have time for you. I go on about how his appearance now as a young adult is important and a reflection on me, as a mother—oh the real victim here—and that I have a certain expectation of what I will be seen as with him. Being on the Autism Spectrum or possibly suffering from teenage boredom, Dylan has little ability to “relate” to or seemingly care about this invaluable wisdom I am bestowing upon him. He just knows that he is uncomfortable. He is use to wearing what he likes which is based largely on the absence of tags in his clothes, avoiding zippers and “starched” garments at all costs, and knowing he’d rather be shuffling around the house in his bathrobe. Like most teens, he has a preferred “uniform” of joggers, tee, hoodie.

However, in an effort to meet him at his level and avoid further mishaps such as this mornings, he now has a designated WHEN I AM WITH MOM outfit in his closet.

WHEN I AM WITH MOM outfits are pre-approved outfits designed by both of us—with my understanding that he has sensory issues with certain types of clothing, and his understanding that he only has to wear this outfit for a designated time or outing. These outfits are to be cleaned (absent of toothpaste) and cared for properly and always at the ready. This has allowed us to teach Dylan the proper way to wash, dry, iron or steam garments—important life skills that ensure he will be a successful (or at least well dressed) adult.

I adore our son, and don’t want to be remembered as “that mom” who is constantly nagging our teen over his appearance. Articulating our expectations and equipping him with the necessary resources prior to run ins have been instrumental in avoiding power struggles and conflicts over this teen topic and others. Allowing him space to discover his own personal identity and comfort is important, as is confidence and respect. Helping him navigate this world is challenging enough without societal judgement so our approach is based on love and understanding, not forced compliance. Had he not changed that morning, the issue would have been mine, not his, although the WHEN I AM WITH MOM outfit idea would still have been born. 

Finally, I just want to give a shout out to my own parents, I totally get it now. I’m sorry. Apparently I survived without those too short shorts and designer torn jeans. And you were right about confidence being the best look in my closet. Love you.

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Originally from the Wichita area, Rachel’s greatest adventure began 20 years ago when she married her husband. Together, they have one living child with Asperger’s (Dylan, ‘03) and one heavenly daughter with cerebral palsy (Mia, 2000-2013). She is a homeschool mom and business owner. Rachel is an unapologetic advocate for children of all abilities, a bookworm, and she will find any excuse to use her Kitchen Aid and wear Junior League red.