Ask An Expert / Parenting Challenges

My 12-year-old daughter acts much older than she is. How do I rein her in?

Start by talking openly with her about her feelings

Stephanie Dowd, PsyD
Stephanie Dowd, PsyD

Clinical Psychologist, Mood Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

I am having issues with my 12-year-old daughter wanting to be and acting much older than she is. She is obsessed with her hair and makeup and wanting to wear clothes that are skimpy. She is a very smart, beyond her years girl. I just don't know how to rein her back in. She is an only child and her father and I have never had a very good relationship. She doesn't like to socialize with her classmates as she feels they are too immature. I really think it is time for some serious therapy. Any suggestions would greatly be appreciated.

This sounds like a difficult situation. Your daughter is at an age when she’s not a kid anymore, but she’s also not a teen yet, either. Caring a lot about hair and makeup and how she looks is normal for her age. In today’s culture when kids — even young kids — are bombarded with images in the media about what’s considered beautiful and cool, it’s hard for them not to be concerned with how they look. Unfortunately, these images in the media are often suggestive and provocative. Younger kids, including tweens such as your daughter, often don’t have the cognitive development to understand the potential risks of dressing provocatively. This is where you as her parent come in.

Talk to your daughter about your concerns. Let her know that it’s normal to try on different styles to figure out what feels right, and you want her to express herself, but within reason. Maybe you can suggest she “play dress up” within the comfort and privacy of her own home, but not wear certain things in public. Don’t be afraid to set limits. For example, you can tell her that as a tween or teen it’s important to wear clothes that aren’t too revealing because it shows that she respects her body and that others should, too.

By focusing on her appearance and her style, she’s trying to figure out who she is. This is normal for her age and a way for her to “try on” different identities or personalities to figure out which feels just right to her. However, that doesn’t mean that everything she chooses to wear is age appropriate. Again, this is where you as a parent can set the limit and tell her she’s not allowed to leave the house wearing certain articles of clothing.

She might disagree with what you’re saying, and that’s ok. Let her know you understand that she thinks certain styles are okay, but as her mom you don’t think they are appropriate for a twelve-year-old. Consider offering a compromise — maybe you will take her shopping to find some new clothes that she thinks are cool and you also think are okay for a twelve-year-old to wear. And remember, you are the parent, so you get to decide what clothes you buy her.

When it comes to socializing, it’s okay for her to not like everyone in her class. However, it is important for her to have a few similar aged friends whom she can connect and bond with.

Encourage her to spend more time with people her age. Maybe you could ask her what she would like to do to have fun with friends, and then invite one or two kids she thinks might also like to do that. You should also explain to her that she might then need to do some things that they like to do, because being flexible and being able to give and take is part of being a good friend.

You also said that your daughter wants to be older in general. This is pretty understandable — a lot of us felt that way as kids. If you remember feeling that way, let her know. Try to emphasize the good things about being twelve. For example, as a twelve year old she has less responsibility, school is manageable, and her only real job is to have fun. Once she’s older and in high school there will be more demands at school and chores around the house.

It’s important that you and her father are on the same page. It’s best to present yourself as a united front on parenting issues. If he is fine with how she’s acting and dressing, try to discuss your concerns with him before you talk to her.

Finally, it is possible that your daughter may be reaching out for some extra attention. I recommend that you and her father each separately spend some quality one-on-one time with her. You can do something age-appropriate that she wants to do, and maybe make it a regular event. A lot of what you are describing is pretty normal, so I’d start with these suggestions first, before taking her to see a therapist.