large tattoo being done on forearm

All I want for Christmas is my first tattoo...

Or nose ring. Or mohawk. Or some other kind of piercing, shaving or dyeing.

How do we respond when our teenager makes a request like this? Well, if you find it confronting, the first thing is to be grateful that they didn’t just go out and do it. Some people may say “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” but as a parent, it’s not an attitude you want to encourage!

Resist the temptation to be outraged or react with something along the lines of: “Not while you live in this house!” That’s a bluff you don’t want to have called.

It’s normal for teenagers to want to demonstrate they are different from their parents. What did previous generations do to rebel? Grow their hair long, or cut it oddly; wear loud patterns, wear black, wear tight clothing, wear baggy clothing; create words their parents didn’t understand; listen to particular music. For the current generation of teenagers, tattoos and piercings may feel like the only form of rebellion left – although we’re fast reaching the stage where many parents have done that too.

Let’s look at, for example, tattoos. It’s better to be curious than furious. Show interest in exactly what they’re considering. What sort of tattoo? Where do they want it? Is it being done for anyone or to impress anyone in particular? How much will it cost? How much will it hurt?

Prompt them to think about related issues. Does the school have a policy about visible tattoos? What kind of job do they hope to get and will a tattoo create problems there? If the tattoo has someone’s name in it, what happens if that relationship ends? How will their tattoo look in 10 years’ time?

These are all questions a teenager may not have thought about. The idea of getting a tattoo is often an abstract notion. Your job is to get them to think about the realities. A conversation like this may or may not result in them changing their mind. But if they’ve already made up their mind, it might result in a more acceptable outcome or a delay in carrying through.

Remember, we can’t impose our wishes on our children forever. And if we frequently discourage their attempts to talk to us about their intentions by automatically rejecting them, the outcomes can be far worse. And not just about things like tattoos!

Teenagers need to learn that home is a safe place to explore ideas and parents are willing to listen. Just because a teenager says he or she wants to get a tattoo or a piercing or a crazy hairdo doesn’t mean they’re actually going to do so.

Providing a sounding board, without immediately rushing to judge, sends a powerful message to a teenager that it’s okay to try out half-formed ideas without being ridiculed, criticised or rejected. And this creates a family environment where teenagers can feel more confident that even more serious issues can be raised without fear.