8-12 Year Olds: Wardrobe Troubles, Tattling Woes and Undereating

The preteen years can be challenging. Your child may be dealing with how she looks and how she fits in with others. Both of these concerns are often evidenced in wardrobe problems, insecurities about body image and even tattling. Here are some suggestions on how you can deal with each of these issues and help your child adjust to the preteen years.

Wardrobe Troubles: A Little Duct Tape Will Do

When I once attended a retreat, the speaker told a funny story. His wife, a junior high teacher, had grown tired of a student who was coming to school wearing his pants so low that his hind end was showing. She warned him, "Do not come to school wearing your pants that way again. If you do, I am going to fix them myself."

The next day, the student came to school with his pants still riding low. True to her word, the teacher said, "I told you not to wear your pants that way to school again. Now, I'm going to fix them." With that, she reached into her desk and pulled out a roll of duct tape, grabbed the student's pants, hiked them up and duct taped them around his middle into the proper position. Not surprisingly, the student never wore his pants that way again.

This funny story illustrates an important principle: when it comes to dressing and wardrobe issues with your kids, it's critical to decide what constitutes a true problem, and what doesn't. For this teacher, the young man's pants were a true problem. As a parent, you'll need to decipher which wardrobe issues are true problems because they affect your child's character or are the result of a character problem, and which ones aren't a big deal because they are only a sign of poor fashion taste.

  • It's OK when things don't match. Not a true problem.

    When I was young, my aunt complained that my younger cousin, who was learning to dress herself, had come up with some rather interesting clothing combinations that were, in my aunt's opinion, less than satisfactory. Striped socks with polka dot pants weren't the ideal look. Thankfully, my aunt was able to chuckle her way through my cousin's awkward stage.

    As your kids express themselves through their clothing, it's often not one of those battles worth fighting. As they grow, they'll figure out what looks good and what doesn't. In his book Have a New Kid by Friday Dr. Leman says, "… you don't have to wear the clothes, so why not let your child be a little creative and learn from the experience?"
  • It's not OK when dress is an outward sign of an inward problem. This is a true problem.
    Just as punk rock dressing was popular when I was in college, Goth fashion is popular now. Goth is worn by teens who belong to the Goth subculture, which is characterized as dark and morbid. This type of dressing is more of a problem than non-matching stripes and dots because it is an outward expression of something deeper that is going on inside the wearer.

    According to Dr. Leman, "… if all of a sudden your child is dressing only in all black, wearing Goth makeup and leather, then clothing is becoming a mountain [not a molehill]. Why? Because with that clothing, your child is trying on a persona that could take her into dangerous territory."

Tattling: Don't Tell Me!

When I was a young public school teacher, I just about went crazy dealing with tattling among my 6th graders. One student in particular always seemed to have an inside scoop on everything her peers were doing. Sadly, I suffered mostly silently while I listened to whining complaints from this girl for an entire school year. I wish I would have known Dr. Leman at the time.

  • Set a hard line for what you'll listen to.
    Leman's solution is simple — just tell the tattle that you don't want to hear it. "If you have a problem with your brother, go talk to him. If there's something that he did, then he should be the one to tell me, not you." Granted, I was in a classroom setting and not dealing with my own kids, but the same principle could have worked.
  • Pay attention to what's behind the tattling.
    Leman says this will be like taking the wind out a sail because the tattler has a motivation behind all of her tattling — and that's to make herself look better or to make her parent think that she is better than her siblings.

Undereating: A Perfect Body Is Not the Goal

More than 20 years ago when I was in junior high, the thought of "getting fat" plagued me almost every day. These concerns still exist, and perhaps even more so for today's young women because of the way the media idolize beauty above character. So while your twelve-year-old boy is stuffing his face after school with mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, your daughter is counting how many calories are in a pile of grapes. According to Dr. Leman, this can be a problem if your daughter becomes preoccupied with how she looks.

  • Keep an eye out for anorexia. If you suspect that your daughter has been lured into the lies that fuel anorexia or bulimia, it's important to immediately get professional help for your child. Both of these health problems can not only affect her in the present, but also in the future. Many long-term bulimics and anorexics experience problems with their teeth, hair, organs and overall health.
  • Share your own imperfections. In his book, Dr. Leman jokes that he likes to pull his sweater up and show people a side view of his gut. "… now there's perfection!" he teases. This kind of lighthearted approach to imperfection is important as you deal with teens who are especially hard on themselves about how they look. "Children love to hear stories about you and how you fell short. It gives them freedom to also be imperfect … Let your imperfection show," says Leman.

    This means you can and should tell your children things about yourself that you have sometimes disliked, or the parts of you that may seem unattractive. If you can make light of it, you will teach your children that it's OK to be imperfect, because we are lovable and acceptable anyway.