Advice for Parents on Talking About Tattoos | MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds

Advice for Parents on Talking About Tattoos


Posted in: Teenagers, Young Adults

Topics: Culture + Society

When it comes to tattoos, it’s always fun, if possible, to inquire.

Last week I saw a snarling demon with drooling teeth moving around on a teenager’s arm. The teenager wasn’t my patient, so rest assured that I am not writing about someone under my care. This particular demon was on an arm that was connected to a kid riding the subway. I watched the painted beast look at me with its goat eyes, and studied the contrast between the otherworldliness of the tattoo, and the fairly normal attire that otherwise adorned its wearer. After a while, I just couldn’t resist.

“I like your tattoo,” I said. It was sort of true; I liked asking about it. I figured that was close enough.

As it turned out, more than one person turned and looked my way. These other subway riders were not put off by my curiosity—it was just that they all had tattoos as well. To whom, everyone wondered, was I addressing my comment?

I only had a few minutes before I had to get off the train, so I decided to be economical and act as though I hadn’t seen the other painted bodies. Instead, I tried to make it more clear to whom I was precisely speaking.

“Is that, um, a demon?” I asked.

The kid with what was clearly a demon smiled and looked down at his forearm. The snarling, drooling beast with funky eyes had a long body that wrapped around his elbow and gave the appearance, therefore, of swimming when he moved his arm. I was relieved to see that he was also smiling.

“Hey, thanks, man,” he said. “I got it out of a comic book.”

I wondered whether his mother knew about the demon. I even wondered whether his mother knew about the comic book. Of course, the tattoo itself was so colorful and obvious that I doubt anyone for miles could have missed it. He was like a beacon advertising body art. The odds were pretty good that his parents knew.

You see (and yes, I am aware of the cliché) when I was a kid, if you had a tattoo, you did your best to hide it. Plus, back then, no one I knew even had a tattoo—or at least an obvious one. That’s, in fact, a central aspect of this post. In the space of about two generations, tattoos have gone from mourned acts of drunken and subsequently hidden impulsivity, to something approaching the norm. According to a Harris Poll conducted in 2015, 29% of Americans now have at least one tattoo. That’s more than double the 14% who reported similarly in 2008. Most of these folks are young adults, and they report that the tattoos make them feel sexy, rebellious and powerful. Most also believe the tattoos make others feel the same way about them—but inquiries into what others really think about their tattooed brethren reveal less than flattering results.

According to the same poll, a fairly significant number of those who do NOT have tattoos view those who do as less intelligent, less capable and even less spiritual. It seems tattoos are a gateway to assumptions by both those who see them on others, as well as those who wear them.

I myself look at the growing amount of body art, and try to imagine all those people in 50 years. Sagging unicorns, wrinkled dragons, once proud-and-symmetrical Celtic designs morphing into ill-defined lines that resemble the meandering of a drunken spider. Those images are NOT assumptions; tattoos DO fade and change with age. However, what we think about the people who have them is still prime material for biased impressions.

This post, however, is primarily for parents. We know there will be varying views on tattoos, but we also know from the statistics that quite a few of you will learn, either by accident or on purpose, that your young one has gone under the painted needle. This, of course, will be less of an issue as tattoos continue to become more common, and less likely the subject of a stern dinnertime discussion. After all, those tattooed people are going to make babies someday; it hardly seems right for a mother with a tattoo to scold her teen for displaying one as well. Or, to rephrase, it hardly seems right for a mother who considers her own tattoo tasteful to scold her teen for getting a similarly tasteful tattoo.

But there’s the rub.

It all comes down to meaning. A mom might tattoo the name of a favorite band on her ankle. I have a friend who has “The Police” written on her calf. If her daughter or son did the same, but with a different band that is more in line with her child’s taste, there seems an obvious double standard to getting angry at that child. (Unless, of course, the band is named something like “Vomit” or “I hate My Mother.”)

You see?

All about meaning.

Here’s what a tattoo on your child does NOT (necessarily) mean:

  • It doesn’t (necessarily) mean that your child has a serious psychiatric disorder.
  • It doesn’t (necessarily) mean that your child is seriously disturbed.
  • It doesn’t even (necessarily) mean that your child got the tattoo to make you angry.

Tattoos are so ubiquitous now, the great irony of their presence is that although images are by definition laden with meaning, tattoos themselves can mean all sorts of things.

But, getting a tattoo DOES necessarily mean that there are specific health issues. If the rate of getting tattoos is greater than 1 in 5, then it behooves the parents among us to at least talk about them with our kids. We sometimes sound like a broken record at The Clay Center (another simile that is lost in the digital age), but we feel pretty strongly that simply taking the time to talk honestly and openly with your children can make a world of difference. Your son or daughter might still get that demon tattoo, but at least it’ll be a safe demon tattoo. Surely that has to count for something.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Tattoo studios have become cleaner and more professional. Still, there exists the risk with any tattoo of serious infection. Not everyone who gets a tattoo will become infected, but tattoos, like all forms of body art, come with instructions. If you are responsible enough to get a tattoo, you’re responsible enough to care for one. Most tattoos take well over a week to heal. Some can take as long as a year. Allowing the tattoo to heal can be the difference between a good result, and a pretty ugly infection. By the same token, pick the studio carefully. Make sure it’s clean, licensed and has a good reputation. Most states in the U.S. have active licensing procedures for tattoo studios. Check your state’s department of health website to learn more. For example, here’s the website for the state of Massachusetts.
  • As the Harris Poll and countless other studies show, people are going to make assumptions about you if you get a tattoo. This might not be a bad thing, and at the end of the day, it’s not that different from the assumptions they make about what you wear or the way you comb your hair. But, you can change your clothes or haircut; it’s not the same case for your tattoo(s) unless you’re willing to spend an awful lot of money on elaborate dermatological procedures that are almost never covered by insurance. That means that quelling the impulse to get a tattoo is no small task for your teen’s impulsive brain. So, see if you can get him or her to make a final decision over the course of a month. Teens change their minds all the time, and the tattoo studios certainly aren’t going anywhere.
  • Finally, take a deep breath. You’re just riding shotgun. At the end of the day, if your teen wants to get a tattoo, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. Teens have enough agency to come up with the $50 to $100 fee, and find their way to a studio. This is all the more reason to have the discussion in a non-judgmental way. Whether it’s a demon, a unicorn, the name of a band, or a portrait of Harry Potter (yes, I’ve seen all of these), it’d be good if you can be in on it. That doesn’t mean that you have to approve or even that you have to give permission. It just means that you want to make sure your teen understands what he or she is doing before the deed is done.

Because even if it’s a snarling demon that ends up snaking up your child’s elbow, at least it’ll be a safe, snarling demon.

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Steven Schlozman, M.D.

Steven Schlozman, M.D.

Steven Schlozman, M.D. an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), course director of the psychopathology class for the MIT-HMS Program in Health, Sciences and Technology, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Young ...

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