The Dad in the Dressing Room


by Danelle Spence



Interior of dressing room at clothing store.

I had an awesome experience last weekend.  I witnessed a dad do an absolutely stellar job with his teenage daughter. I know there are so many great dads out there, but this particular exchange had to be documented 🙂

I was in the Banana Republic Outlet Store. I was in the change room trying on the same old’ same old’ (something with stripes, if you must know). I saw a teen girl, about 16 years old, enter the change room beside me. She was with her dad and she needed to buy a dress. Occasion? Unknown. Before I entered my own room, I saw him heading her way with an armful of potential dresses.

I continued to mind my own business, and quietly enjoyed my striped-shirt frenzy when I was interrupted by the not-so-subtle whimpering coming from the change room beside me. It began as a snivel, that quickly transformed to sobs:

“Dad! Where are you?”

“I’m here on the bench.”

“You have to come in here! I can’t leave the change room in this!!!”

I heard the dad get up and enter her room. Crying ensued:

“I look like Quasie Moto!” (I snickered at the description, but also knew that in her experience of herself, she really felt that way.)

Now, pause for a moment. If you’re a dad, how would you respond? I believe the instinctive response is to say: “Don’t be ridiculous, you look great!”. But what I have learned through my years working specifically with teen girls, is that accidentally, this dismisses her distress and tells her that you ‘don’t get her’. Therefore, she will likely get more upset and more distressed.  Irrational, perhaps – but almost inevitable.

This is what the dad actually said (or some close variation of this) :

 “Oh, Jess. I can see how upset you are, and I get it – this is a big event for you. You’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, and now you can’t find the perfect outfit – so I can get why you are crying. But right now you can’t see what I see, and I look forward to one day you were able to see the beauty that I do. Now let’s keep trying on a bunch of things so that you can feel as confident as you can! I have all the time in the world. “

WHAT! Are you kidding me??? How did he know to say that?

Who knows, but he did, nonetheless. And it was perfect. He was calm, he was confident, and he didn’t dismiss or ignore the fact she was feeling like garbage. He may have been thinking…this is so unreasonable… OR…how much longer will this take…OR… I have other things to do… but he knew that her experience was one of distress and he emotionally attuned to this. AND it worked. She calmed down and saw that at that moment, her dad was there for her. They were then able to continue the (albeit, somber) dress search journey. I wanted to leap out of my change room and give him the biggest hug – a dad that really, really gets it. (But that would have been creepy).

This is a good example of a teenager “borrowing a mature adult’s, prefrontal cortex.” See… she had been acting out of her lower brain: the fight and flight, unreasonable, reactive, impulsive brain. She needed to be in the more rational brain, the prefrontal cortex: the realistic, higher-order, decision-making, calm, reasonable brain. Her prefrontal cortex had gone ‘off-line’ for a moment, and she needed to borrow her dad’s. Had he gotten irritated, asked her not to be ridiculous, or flared-up himself – it could have gone completely backward. Instead, she calmed down and was able to try on more outfits with her dad’s presence (with the more mature prefrontal cortex nearby, had she needed to use it).

Message to DADS :

Sometimes (ok, lots of times) teen girls may not reason in the way that you may like. When they are acting out of their lower brains, the best thing to do is not to match or join her there. If you present a calm demeanor, practice good emotional attunement, use a gentle, steady voice … this can make all the difference in the world. All kids want to feel is that you get them and that you are trying to understand their experience. EVEN IF YOU DON”T.  This sense of feeling “felt”, feeling connected, feeling attuned to, will neurologically settle their brains and most importantly… strengthen your relationship with them. As a natural result, they will come to you in moments of distress. Instead of just mom, or friends, or boys… you get the picture. So roll your eyes in your imagination, sigh those sighs in silence, and keep <metaphorically> bringing her new outfits.


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About the Author

Danelle Spence

Danelle Spence is a Registered Psychologist with a passion for helping teens effectively manage emotional distress and helping their parents’ understand the complex and developing teenage brain.

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