“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
What do you say when your 12-year-old wants to dye her hair blue? How about when your teenage son comes home wearing black nail polish? Or when your 18-year-old college freshman returns for fall break with a tattoo or nose piercing?
A big part of a child’s development from childhood into the teenage years is making their own decisions and accepting additional responsibilities. Your teen might hate taking out the trash and the heavy workload that comes with middle school and high school, but they are excited about being less dependent on the adults in their lives and exploring new freedoms. During the tween and teenage years, kids experiment with different “looks” as a way of exploring these new opportunities and experimenting with developing their personal identity and style. For the most part, these new choices – whether you like them or not – are rarely harmful. And how you respond to their choices could damage a close relationship or create further divides in an already turbulent one.
Some of your teen’s decisions may be more difficult to accept than others. Let’s look at the most common ones that have caught parents off guard.
Clothing and accessory choices
How your adolescent dresses is one of the earliest opportunities they have to express their individuality. It is often how they begin navigating their way around social cliques and friendships. One Bethesda mom didn’t even recognize her tween when she came downstairs on the first day of school. “You’re wearing THAT?” she blurted out in response to her daughter wearing high-waisted, two-toned wide-leg jeans with a crop top, chunky hair accessories and skinny retro sunglasses.
Kids often use style to try out different parts of their identity. Allow your teen the freedom to explore. Talking with them about what they like to wear is a great way of showing them that you care – as long as you are not passing judgment on their choices. Your negative comments may seem harmless to you but to them it could feel like an attack on who they are as a person.
So even if your tween or teen has taken on elements of an IRL (in real life) E-girl or E-boy style (think short skirts, fishnets, colorful hair and makeup including the common heart drawn under the eye), allow them to express their style and interests. They may get disapproving looks from their peers and other adults, but the role of the parent is to support their choices while preparing them to respond to those who may react less favorably.
Hair styles and color
Hair style and length are among the most public personal choices a person can make. And hair is malleable, so we can change it much easier than we can any other part of our physical appearance. What should you do when your teen wants to style their hair in a way that you don’t agree with? Support them.
Alyson Schafer, a Toronto psychotherapist, explains that when you ban something, you make it much more interesting. When you allow your child to freely express themselves and try out new trends, you may avoid bigger issues down the road because you aren’t driving a wedge in your relationship over a small issue. Hair styles change and hair color can be reversed or left to grow out.
Parents can still state their own opinions, Schafer says. “You might say, ‘When I see people with multicolored hair, I find it distracting,’ or ‘I’m worried about the chemicals used to dye hair different colors,’ but refrain from saying anything judgmental.”
If it’s hair coloring that you’re concerned about, you can suggest a temporary option that won’t damage your child’s hair. Brian O’Connor, co-founder of Good Dye Young hair products, notes that if they’re looking to try out a particular color, there are pastes, sprays and chalks that wash out after one or two shampoos. And a semi permanent dye will only last a month or two before gradually fading.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state except Nevada has laws addressing body art (which includes piercings, subdermal implants, body painting and tattooing). Some states’ laws are more lenient than others, but most prohibit body piercing and tattooing on minors without parental consent. Maryland, however, does not. It’s up to you to set appropriate boundaries that you are comfortable with. Some parents, for example, believe that piercings are fine on some areas of the body but not on others. For other parents, some body piercings may have cultural meanings. Regardless, good health and hygiene are always something to consider. Complications of body piercing include infections (both local and systemic), scars and keloids, allergic reactions and foreign body rejection. There is a higher incidence of infections with navel piercings than with earlobe piercings.
If you’re just not comfortable with it, it’s also OK to simply say no, says Schafer. “Most kids really do have a great respect for their parents and don’t want to disappoint us. But don’t over-exercise your ability to veto. Be judicious,” she cautions.
If state laws do not prohibit tattooing minors, most local jurisdictions do, which makes getting a tattoo under the age of 18 illegal. And even without legal restrictions, most reputable tattoo artists won’t ink a minor without parental consent. Regardless of whether it’s legal or not, the fact remains that getting tattoos is growing in popularity.
The (relatively) permanent nature of a tattoo is probably what scares parents the most about this form of self-expression. Sure, most tattoos can be removed, but not without significant cost, effort and expertise. Whether your teen is just testing the waters to see how you’ll react to their desire to get a tattoo, or the tattoo has already been inked, this is the perfect opportunity to engage in conversation. Become curious about why they want a tattoo and the type of artwork they gravitate toward. What does getting a tattoo mean to them? Is it independence? A way of expressing themselves? A desire to join in on the social trend? How do they think they’ll feel in 10 years about the tattoo they want now? It’s human nature to want to express your individuality.
Keep this in mind whenever your tween or teen wants to express themselves in a way that you don’t agree with. Use the opportunity to ask questions and get to know and understand them better. You might just find that resisting the urge to judge and prohibit strengthens your relationship and softens the need for asserting their independence.
Before reacting, stop and go through this mental checklist:
- Take a few deep breaths. This is not about YOU. This is about your tween/teen.
- Ask yourself, why am I having this strong reaction to my child’s choice?
- Where do I draw the line? Is this a health & safety issue? Does it reflect our family values? Is this choice consistent with written policies (like a dress code)?
- Talk openly with your child about his/her feelings. Be curious, ask questions.
- Come to an agreement — knowing that the ultimate decision is yours, so be realistic and keep restrictions to a minimum.