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My Teen Wants To Get A Tattoo... What Should I Do?

My Teen Wants To Get A Tattoo... What Should I Do?

My Teen Wants To Get A Tattoo... What Should I Do?
I heard a woman talking - well panicking I guess is the word - on a chat show recently about her daughter who wants a tattoo. She was bewildered and had LOTS of questions - 
  • WHY does she want to RUIN her beautiful skin like this?
  • Does she not KNOW that tattoos are forever?
  • Why does she want to do something that EVERYONE knows is painful?
  • Isn't it JUST a fad??
Good questions - yup - for sure. I'd imagine myself wondering the same things if I had a daughter with 'the tattoo itch'. But then being someone who has veered (well, purposefully steered) down the tattoo route herself I might be something of a big oul' hypocrite if I were to dodge the actual answers.
 
So I organised my thoughts on this one because this actually comes up a lot:
 
A little history of the psychology behind getting a tattoo: 
 
We’ve been tattooing ourselves since the dawn of time. The Ice man’s body was tattooed - and that was over 5000 years ago!  It's not 'new' by any means, despite the radio show host's protestations. Maybe it's cyclical - and we forget - like we mercifully forgot about batwing jumpers and then they came back too! (am a biassed batwing hater...)
 
 
We have cultures all over the world who have striking and, by now, “traditional “ tattoos on their faces and bodies - and we seem to have many reasons for this down through the ages. I was thinking about these reasons while I heard that woman talking. It's not just us and it's not just now.
 
There have always been personal, meaningful motivations for tattoos: 
  • Spiritual/religious 
  • To stand out
  • To fit in
  • To enhance attractiveness
  • To demonstrate power or resistance to pain, even death
  • To mark life stage transition or recovery from an event or trauma
 The latter two are the ones I am most interested in. They're also the ones I see as having more meaning in the context of my own practice and of our own society, where more and more we talk about mental health. 
 
* Is tattooing a form of self-harm? This was one of the questions put to me by a journalist recently. For some teens, perhaps boys in particular, the tattoo is a show of resilience and physical strength and yes, may even represent a form of self-harm in that the ritual is painful. But in my experience there is more to it than that - it is layered.
 
* For many it’s the ultimate exercise in control and control isn't necessarily a bad thing. To permanently decorate ones’ own body is a statement of defiance, celebration and durability. The clue as to the main motivator is often in the choice of image. A tattoo is to literally mark down the moment, defy the inevitable ageing process and ultimately, even death itself.
 
* For others it's about recovery from loss. I see young people choosing tattoos after experiencing a significant loss. It’s a meaningful and often very beautiful homage to the lost person or thing or way of life. It symbolises their not forgetting, and the willingness to always be reminded - a symbol of enduring love. This may be seen by some as a not letting go, a maladaptive response to grief. I understand that, but it’s not how I see it. I see it part of a process - for many, a therapeutic part. It's the ultimate act of Art Therapy, if you will.
 
 
* Another healing function, again particularly among teens and early twenty-somethings, can be that tattoos effectively cover up self-harm scars. We all know that self-harm is on the rise. There are many scarred young bodies out there. And as they recover and emerge - many choose to decorate and cover up rather than simply cover with clothing or have the scars exposed.
 
In this way the tattoo serves several functions - it conceals the scar, it allows for a symbol to take its place, one that has meaning, a meaning that usually refers to the pain that drove the self-harm in the first place. In this way, it serves as a reminder, and a nudge to choose a different behaviour - an adaptive one, a harm-free one.
 
* Teens and young people (and old people) often choose to tattoo post-surgery scar tissue as well. It's a lovely way to reframe an injury or medical intervention - post-cancer for example  - that may well have been life-saving. So why not make it beautiful? 
 
* The other hugely important function of the scar-covering tattoo is that it allows for questioning. The wearer knows that people will ask about tattoos - naturally. They then have a choice about how much of the story to tell. It’s another way of having a new and comforting sense of power and control  - this time, over whom to share this information with. Having something hidden in plain sight can be a comfort, even a private smile to oneself. It’s a statement to oneself, and a conversation with oneself. And for the wearer, this might be a new, novel and comforting thing. 
  
Incidentally - and just to say this isn't an advertising feature - I called into Love Hate in Cork having been prompted to do so by a client of mine who sports a new tattoo that is dripping with meaning and symbolism. They cordon off an area for self-harm cover tattoos and are very sensitive to the subject. I spoke to them about it and their policy, which is detailed and strict. And in fairness, they said they are not unique - that many shops are just as sensitive to these issues at the moment. Colour me impressed!! 
 
So, if your child wants a tattoo - I would suggest that you don't panic.
 
Instead, have a conversation or two with yourself and with them and... 
  • Think back to what motivated you if you have one (or indeed a whole tapestry!)
  • Consider any recent upheavals in your child's life that might have triggered this - particularly losses.
  • Are there new friends that your child might be desperately trying to blend in with?
  • Are there old ex-friends that your child is desperately trying to disassociate from?
  • Are they willing to wait for an agreed amount of time? (just to cover the possibility of good old fashioned teen impulsivity!)
So here are my suggested answers for that distraught woman - 
  • She does not see it as ruination but as decoration. It's a different perspective. Granted, one with which you disagree.
  • Yes, she knows it permanent which is probably one of the reasons she wants it. 
  • Either the pain is part of it, or for her, the pain is simply a part of the cost.  And it seems it's worth it in her opinion.
  • Yes, it is a current fad, the same could be said of what you and I are wearing right now! But "just" is a word that lands as dismissive - particularly on teenaged ears.  The real question is "Why is this a fad in which my child feels the need to participate?" Bearing in mind that the motivations can be initially unconscious.
 A conversation about these things might result in the desire for a tattoo to fade (see what I did there?). And if not, at least you'll have your answers and so will they. Everyone will be more informed - and informed consent is gold.
 
Then you can decide as a parent whether or not to allow your child to go ahead and er... make their mark.

Sally O’Reilly is the Family Psychology Expert here at FamilyFriendly HQ. She's a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ fulltime experience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site sallyoreilly.com or on Twitter @psychosal or Facebook at Sally O'Reilly Psychology & Psychotherapy.