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"Mom, I Want a Tattoo": Why teens want to change their body appearance - and how to respond to that

Bill and Lori were reeling. Their 14-year-old daughter, Megan, wanted to get a rose tattoo on her hand as well as a gold ring in her navel. In their opinion, Megan showed complete disregard for their feelings about such significant body changes.

As I talked with Bill and Lori, they were surprised to learn that tattoos and piercing are more mainstream than they thought. One study of 2,100 teens from schools in eight states found that 1 in 10 kids had a tattoo, and over 50 percent were interested in getting one. A majority of these students were pulling A's and B's.

For many children at this age, the desire to change body appearance is a natural rite of passage from childhood dependence to youthful independence. Still, parents understandably feel concern when a young teen thinks a tattoo or piercing is a good option.

What to Do

  1. Recognize that, in large part, tattoos and body piercing are fads, and fads die out. Most hippies of the sixties now wear suits to their jobs.
  2. Parents have some control over their teens since most states require parental consent up to age 18 for tattooing.
  3. Calmly discuss the medical risks of these procedures. For example, navel piercing can take a year to heal, since that area is prone to infection and easily irritated by clothes. The tongue swells tremendously when first pierced and always remains tender. Health complications also include the increased possibility of contracting Hepatitis B, hiv, and tetanus from the needles and dyes. An improperly placed piercing, even in the cartilage of the ear, can damage nerves and cause disfigurement.
  4. Bring your teen on a field trip to a tattoo parlor. Often these are dirty places and will disgust most teens. You can discuss the less-than-sterile conditions and remind them what heavily-tattooed rock star Axl Rose said about tattooing: "Think before you ink!"
  5. Explain that not only do the tattooing and piercing procedures hurt, but if a teen would like to reverse the process later, the laser surgery necessary to do so can be even more painful. The skin does not return to its previous appearance, and some colors, like red, are often impossible to remove. Help your teen understand that the choice to get a tattoo isn't a temporary fashion statement but a permanent lifestyle statement that is best made as an adult.
  6. If this issue creates a family impasse, consider getting professional counseling.
  7. Get information. Check safety guides from Health Edco (www.healthedco.com) and the Internet magazine Tattoo (www.tattoos.com).
  8. Finally, if your teen is intent on changing her appearance, suggest temporary solutions such as faux piercings with magnetic studs, temporary tattoos like mehndi skin paintings that can last up to a month or temporary hair coloring.

The good news is that most teens drop these adornments as they mature and as fads change.

?Dr. Allen F. Johnson Auburn (MA) Family Institute

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