What to do When Your Teen Wants a Tattoo

Make sure your teen thinks twice about getting a tattoo.
Sara Sanger / Photolibrary / Getty Images

“I think I want to get a tattoo.” Hearing those words from a teen will likely horrify many parents. But if your teen just announced her desire to get a butterfly tattooed on her back, or a frog tattooed on her ankle, don’t panic.

Plenty of young men and women from all walks of life are sporting tattoos these days. In fact, a 2010 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 40% of people ages 18 to 29 have tattoos.

About half of those with tattoos have more than one.

But of course, the "everybody's doing argument" shouldn't be the reason your teen gets a tattoo. If your child has expressed an interest in getting some ink, listen to her reasoning with an open-minded.

If she's under 18, you'll get to make the ultimate decision about whether she can get some ink. But even if your answer is going to be no, her interest in a tattoo can lead to an open and honest conversation. 

Listen to Your Teens Ideas About a Tattoo

It’s important not to forbid it and then abruptly end the conversation. Instead, use it as an opportunity to start a discussion. Hearing her out could help you gain a better understanding of what she’s thinking and how she serious is about getting some ink.

If you feel completely overwhelmed by the idea of your teenager sporting a tattoo, pause for a moment. Take an entire minute, or longer–whatever time you need to be able to respond rationally.

If you’re struggling to remain calm, acknowledge that you’re going to need a few moments to process the idea before you can talk about it in a fair, rational manner. Since it is something she wants, she's likely to oblige.

When you’re able to do so, ask her about her plans for the tattoo. What will it be, how big and more importantly, where?

Don’t pass any judgment and refrain from using sarcasm. Instead, respectfully listen to what she has to say.

Validate Your Teen's Feelings

Before expressing your opinion, validate your teen’s feelings. Say something like, “I know how fun and exciting it can be to think about trying something new,” or “I can see you’re really excited about the idea of getting a tattoo.”

When your teen knows you’re trying to understand her point of view, she’ll at least know you were listening. That can go a long way to decreasing your teen’s frustrations, even if your ultimate answer is no.

Discuss the Possibility of Regret

Of course, the biggest concern most parents have is that their teen will regret their decision a few years down the road. But before you jump in to tell her all the reasons why you think getting ink is a bad idea, ask open-ended questions. Find out how much she has really considered the potential consequences of getting a tattoo.

If the image or text she plans for the tattoo is something that seems ridiculous or offensive to you, ask how she would feel if she saw you or someone far older than you sporting that same tattoo.

That “cute” cartoon or funny saying might not have the same appeal on an 80-year-old as it would an 18-year-old. If she agrees that it wouldn't look right, point out that she will be that age someday and would still have that tattoo.

Remind her that fads and trends change so that trendy meme or phrase she's thinking about will be completely outdated or meaningless in the not-too-distant future. This may prompt her to think more about her plans and to remember that, save for tattoo removal, she's going to have to live with her choice for a long, long time.

Tattoo Removal

A lot of teens aren't concerned about long-term consequences of a tattoo because they're convinced they can simply get it removed at a later date. That may be true, but tattoo removal costs a lot of money.

While it may only cost a few hundred dollars to get a tattoo, erasing that ink could run several thousand dollars. Tattoo removal usually takes more than one session and can be painful, too.

The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery reports performing more than 95,000  laser tattoo removals in the United States in 2013 – up about 50 percent from the previous year. Ink removal is a major business and serves as evidence that many people regret their tattoo decisions.  

The Reality of Getting a Tattoo

A real tattoo isn't like the Cracker Jack lick-and-stick tattoos from years past. The larger, more colorful and more detailed the tattoo, the longer it takes to create.

That means more needles, more pain, and a bigger expense. Is your teen willing to deal with hours of pain and potentially numerous trips to get the job finished? Make sure your teen understands that a machine will pierce her skin repeatedly to inject the ink without any kind of anesthetic.

Make sure your teen also understands the financial burden of getting a tattoo too. Has she researched the cost? How will she pay for it? If she isn’t sure how much a tattoo will likely cost, encourage her to gain a better understanding by conducting a little online research.

The Location of the Tattoo

Even if the tattoo itself seems relatively innocuous, the location may not be. Remind your teen that a tattoo in an area that's visible most of the time, such as on the face or neck,  may hinder his career choices later on.

While this isn't the case as much as it was a decade or two ago, many employers don't allow employees to have tattoos that are visible while wearing standard work attire.

If your teen wants a tattoo in a place that would only be visible while completely naked, your conversation may have to veer down the path of “the talk.” Hold an open discussion about sexuality and sexual activity.

Ask questions that will help you discover the reason he would want a tattoo that no one is going to see. Is this tattoo really his own choice or did someone else suggest it? What’s the point of getting a tattoo that no one—or almost no one—will ever see?

Potential Safety Issues

Tattoos don’t come without risks. The ink used in many of today’s tattoos—especially those associated with the latest techniques like glow-in-the-dark tattoos—are made from the same chemicals used in car paint. The ink isn’t regulated by the FDA and little is known about the long-term effects the ink may have on the body.

Additionally, tattoos may have other safety risks such as:

  • Infection and exposure to diseases – Some dirty artists use dirty needles. Improper sanitation of the equipment can pass infection from one person to the next. Getting a tattoo may increase the risk of hepatitis or HIV.
  • Allergic reactions – Your teen won’t know how she will react to the ink until she gets a tattoo. Sometimes, people are allergic to certain pigments and it can lead to serious reactions.
  • Granulomas –  Granulomas, or small bumps in the skin, form around material the body views as foreign. Some people experience these when their body perceives tattoo pigment as foreign.
  • Scarring – Everyone’s skin is different. Some people form scar tissue around a tattoo. And others, get unwanted scar tissue when they try to have a tattoo removed
  • MRI complications – People can still get an MRI after having a tattoo, but some people experience complications, such as swelling or burning on the tattoo site.

Laws About Minors Getting Tattoos

Check out that tattoo laws in your state. Some states don’t allow minors to get tattoos under any circumstances. Other states allow for teens under 18 to get ink if they have written permission from a guardian.

You may find that you don’t have to worry about your teen getting a tattoo for a few more years anyway. But even if it isn’t legal, create opportunities to discuss the pros and cons so your teen can make an informed decision when she is old enough.

Also, be aware that your teen may say she knows someone who is willing to give her a tattoo even when she’s too young to legally get one. Talk about the dangers of getting a tattoo by someone who doesn’t abide by the law.

The Big Decision

Regardless of what your ultimate answer is, make sure you've helped your teen see the potential consequences of getting a tattoo. It’s an important decision that shouldn’t be made spontaneously.

If your teen isn’t able to get a tattoo now because she’s too young, or because you won’t grant permission, your discussions can teacher her how to calculate risk and how to solve problems. Eventually, she’ll be old enough to make the decision on his own and it’s important that he have the skills to make healthy decisions for herself.

A safer alternative to permanent ink could be a temporary tattoo. There are plenty of temporary tattoo options that look real. Putting one on and wearing around for a while may help your teen discover whether permanent ink is really something she wants to do.

References:

American Society for Dermatologic Surgery: Regret that body ink? Technology makes removal easier than ever 

Pew Research Center: Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.

U.S Food and Drug Administration: Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?

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