Is This Normal? Teens, Tattoos, Piercings, and Technicolor Hair

Written by: Ann O'Neill

  • For her birthday, is your teen asking for a tasteful tattoo of a ballet dancer on the moon holding a butterfly?
  • At a recent rehearsal, did your teen let his fellow cast member pierce his eyebrow?
  • Is your daughter showing interest in highlighting her hair in shades reminiscent of “My Little Ponies?”

It’s teens’ work to figure out their identities, and anyone who has been there knows it can be thrilling, exhilarating, and a rough slog.  Identity formation includes examining parental values, societal expectations, what their peers seem to be doing, and asserting bursts of independence.  Part of the process almost always includes redefining their appearances.  Most of the time, it includes redefining their appearances more than once.

The idea to redefining appearances is to stand out from their peers but not enough to be rejected by them.  It’s a tricky equation to balance.  Experimentation is often required.  This is why some teens go through several changes of clothing before going to the post office.

This is also tricky for parents who may not be comfortable with their teens’ experimentations in appearance.  Parental discomfort with teen appearances has been happening for decades.  While it’s expected and normal for teens to push their parents’ boundaries, it’s rarely comfortable for parents.

The pervasive thought in psychology is that parents can’t control what their teens wear or who their friends are.  If you forbid them to wear a certain clothing style, they can change their clothes in the school bathroom or at a friend’s house.  If you forbid them to get a nose piercing, they can try to do it themselves.  So, what are parents to do with teens who seem preoccupied with getting a tattoo, rocking a micro-mini skirt, nose ring or shaving their eyebrows? Try and use this as an opportunity to connect with your teens.

I have a few suggestions.  Please take what makes sense to you.

  • Use positive reinforcement when your kids and teens look beautiful, confident or even just clean.  Tell them that they look fantastic and that you can’t believe you have such amazing kids.  Tell them this when they aren’t dressed for a special occasion.  It goes a long way.
  • Differentiate if the changes they’re considering are permanent or impermanent.
    • If they’re considering a permanent change…
      • Take this seriously.  Reply with a neutral, “Oh,” or “Tell me more about what you’re thinking.”
      • Avoid a dictatorial response like, “Over my dead body will you ever tattoo yourself,” or the emotional response, “But your so beautiful already!  Why would you ever do that to your body?”
      • Try to channel this request into action.  Explain that action is stronger than appearance.  If they want a change to show that they are different, strong or brave, give them opportunities to volunteer or take a class outside school.  The urge to alter their appearance permanently might be fueled by the completely normal urge to engage in risk-taking behaviors.  Give adolescents opportunities to engage in healthy risk-taking.
      • Say yes but not until you’re 18… 25…30…40.
      • Say yes but it has to be a temporary tattoo or a false piercing.
  • If they’re considering an impermanent change…
    • Raccoon-eyes eyeliner, neon hair color, or all black clothing aren’t generally causes for concern.  Take pictures – lots and lots of pictures. It’s likely most teens won’t carry these styles far into adulthood.
    • Clothing that is revealing or suggestive does cause concern.  Young women are saturated with media images that tell them that their worth relies in their sexual attractiveness.  It’s normal for young women to internalize this unless parents teach them otherwise.  Ask what they want people to notice about them.  What are their best qualities?  Chances are their answers will include their personalities.  Run with this and offer clothing choices that reflect their outstanding personality.

If appearance issues interfere with school and home routines or if a change in appearance is accompanied by a drop in grades, social isolation or a change in peer group, it’s time to get help.  Start with the school counselor and share your observations.  It might be an overt rejection of parental values or a need for risk-taking opportunities.  If you can’t determine what your teens are saying with their appearances, you might want to consider professional counseling for you or for your teen.

Teens experimenting with their appearances are normal. Connecting with your teens about their appearances is good health.

One Response to “Is This Normal? Teens, Tattoos, Piercings, and Technicolor Hair”

  1. Great article! I have a book on the topic: “Teens, Tattoos, & Piercings: The health & social impact of permanent body art.” It’s a health education supplement for 7th and 8th grade Health Education classes. Too many youths are getting amateur tattoos at tattoo parties without adequate infection control, or sensible advice on what should or shouldn’t be permanently place on the body. Go to shoulditattoo.com or teenstattoosandpiercings.com for more information.

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