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The Parent's Guide to Body Decoration

The Parent

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Updated on Aug 6, 2013

Doina S.’s daughter was fourteen when she wanted her belly button pierced. So mom and dad went with her to meet the guy who was conducting the piercing, had him show them his sterilization method, the procedure was done, and they thought that was the end of it.

But a few years later, her daughter announced she was getting a tattoo, and Doina wasn’t thrilled. “It’s hard for a mom to see something that’s ‘perfect’ getting marked up,” says Doina, thirty-eight, a mother of three and owner of a health and wellness spa in southern Nevada. “I figured that part of growing up and becoming independent is making choices. She has always been sensible and we trusted her.” And the result?

“I hate her tattoo,” says Doina of the unicorn stomping on the moon on her daughter’s lower back. “You might as well poke me in the eye.”

Indeed, when it comes to body decoration, teens are often from Mars and parents from, well, Earth. Parents generally aren’t fond of the idea of marking up their babies with tattoos, piercings, and strange dye jobs.

Yet body decoration is no longer the domain of sailors, tribesmen, and the “bad kids”-even the “good ones” want them. Why? “They do it to stand out and be different,” says Pamela Cantor, Ph.D., a lecturer in psychology, Department of Psychiatry, The Cambridge Hospital, Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, who treats adolescents, “just as you might make a statement by wearing all black and being Goth.”

What’s a Big Deal and What’s Not

There are all kinds of body art, including piercings (think ear, nose, tongue, eyebrow, belly button) to tattoos (think anywhere!) to extreme haircuts, such as head shaving and permanent hair dying. What should you be concerned about as a parent?

The answer largely will depend on your parenting style, but let’s start with health concerns, which are paramount. Your teenage daughter dying her hair purple may seem harmless enough, but permanent dyes can produce allergic reactions to skin. “A test of the dye on the skin should be done prior to the complete dye technique,” says John C. Fleming M.D., author of Preventing Addiction: What Parents Must Do to Immunize their Kids Against Drug and Alcohol Addiction. With tattooing and body piercing, the health dangers become more serious, says Fleming. “With tattooing, we worry about hepatitis B and C being passed from unclean instruments because of blood left from a previous customer,” says Fleming, adding that Staph (staphylococcus aureus) skin infections are also possible from both tattooing and piercing procedures.

Even knowing the health concerns, though, might not be enough to stop the stubborn, headstrong, or increasingly image-conscious teen. Therefore, it’s time for action. Some options:

  1. Just say no. Putting your foot down stresses how important this decision is to you, says Robert Butterworth, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “We all know from our teenage years that a lot of the weird things we did were phases,” he says. “But when you start doing something that’s going to make it difficult to function in the world, then parents have to step in and say, ‘Not until you leave home.’ And kids aren’t going to like it.” Indeed, Diane W.’s daughter got a belly button piercing when she was sixteen. “I took her to get it,” says Diane, forty, who lives in upstate New York. When her daughter approached her for a nose piercing, Diane outright refused. “That, to me, is over the line,” says Diane, who works as a sales consultant for a life insurance company. “It is a big commitment to make to your appearance for life. She pursued me about it for a while, but since she is now eighteen, I think she is happy that I didn’t allow it. Sometimes moms really do know best!”
  2. Know your child. If you refuse them, would they conceivably do the job themselves? Be sure your teens understand that there will be severe consequences if they pierce or tattoo themselves or a friend.
  3. Negotiate a deal. If your teen has her heart set on a tattoo, ask her to start off small, with a tiny rose or sunburst, or to pick an inconspicuous place, such as her ankle or shoulderblade. (You can also insist that you go with her to get the tattoo, which, in some cases, may be embarrassing enough to have her put it off!) You can also use delay tactics, such as telling your teen that he needs to “earn” his body decoration, perhaps through chores, or you can just flat out tell him he has to wait. Since body decoration can be an impulsive act, they might not want one anymore after they’ve grown up a little.
  4. Talk about all kinds of pain. It’s no secret that getting a tattoo hurts-really hurts. And although some teens might find enduring the pain of a tattoo sort of a war story of adolescence, they may feel differently when it’s time to get one removed-an excruciatingly painful process. (And also expensive. In 2001, the AAD reported that a tattoo that costs $50 to $100 to obtain may cost $1,200 to $1,500 to remove by laser, with the average cost of an individual tattoo laser treatment ranging from $350 to $600 per treatment.)
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