What is your child going through? You may think you remember adolescence, but keep in mind that your memories are colored by your hormones, and that every person's experience is his own.
Who Am I Today?
Your adolescent is in flux. She may try on identities like hats: punk, slacker, social activist, financier. Changing “costumes” (including hair styles and world views) is an important part of your child's self-discovery. Stay back and watch her explore. Making an issue out of hair color or skirt length is often not worth it. You risk alienating your teenager. Remember, choose your battles.
Young adolescents often go through a year or more where they and their friends seem to meld, and become one, giant, hormonal mass of jumbo adolescent. They dress the same, talk the same, tend to wander the world in packs, and also tend to do stupid, risky things to prove how grown-up they are (thereby proving they are not). Whether or not the behavior is stupid, the need to conform is not. It's a developmental stage, and the kid who is pushed to be nonconformist will suffer. In a couple of years, don't worry, most kids both calm down (in terms of risks) and start looking like an individual again. As much as you can, keep them safe, but let them look like (and run with) the pack.
- If your child is looking totally cloned, don't make an issue about it. (It's just hair, clothes, and attitudes.)
- No matter what's up with the identity, stress to your child that the family values statement and family rules still hold, at least in your household.
- Shifting identities is healthy, but watch your child for major shifts in behavior. Adolescents are at high risk for depression, drug abuse, and eating disorders.
Piercings, tattoos, brandings, and other scarifications are a more serious issue because they are irreversible (or only reversible after a tremendous amount of effort and money). Many tattoo and piercing parlors now require parental permission before they will work on minors, but there are always ways around that. Ugly ways. (At least at a tattoo parlor, the work is done by an artist or trained professional who follows health and safety precautions.)
It's a Good Idea!
If he's insistent on permanent body decorations, you can help practice “creative damage minimization” by supporting a few extra ear pierces, or a small tattoo on his shoulder rather than the six eyebrow pierces or the full-body dragon he's hankering for. Take him to a reputable body shop where you know they change the needles (dirty needles can spread hepatitis, AIDS, and other nefarious diseases).
Sometimes kids test their parents by threatening to get tattoos or body pierces. If your kid really wants a tattoo or pierce (and is deigning to talk with you about it), try not to overreact (“You what!”), and treat it as a topic for discussion. Discuss the pros and cons (and your own personal opinions) in as levelheaded a manner as you can, and let her make the decision. Remember that 1) adolescents don't really understand the concept of “irrevocable,” 2) talking about it might be an attempt to get some support for a “no” decision, and 3) no matter what you say or think, she will make the decision for herself. Don't alienate her, and you may get some input.
Tattooing is a centuries-old art form (not one that everybody supports, but an art form nonetheless). Piercing and branding are also done for style reasons by many, many people. They can also be a signal that your child is depressed or having difficulty coping emotionally. If your child comes home “altered,” try to determine if it is for style reasons, or for other, less happy purposes.