My teen wants to get a tattoo. What should I do?

Behind the desire to bear permanent skin art, there is a need to stand out and create one’s own identity. Experts recommend discussing it with your teenager, informing them of all possible consequences

A girl shows the tattoo se has on the back of her neck.
A girl shows the tattoo se has on the back of her neck.Rosmarie Wirz (Getty Images)

“I want to get a tattoo.” This is the mantra of many teens these days, one that usually makes the parents fear for the well-being of their children. But what is behind the fascination with having a permanent drawing on their skin or piercing their body? This usually has a social function that is related to rebellion, explains Ana María Gómez, a psychologist specializing in children and teenagers.

“On one hand, there are teenagers who want to distinguish themselves from the group, create their own identity and be unique, to assert their own existence and feel that they don’t follow canons established by others,” says the expert. Getting a tattoo also has to do with the desire to feel part of “a kind of tribe where they are accepted or popular, a feeling that is heightened by having idols who get tattoos and appear in social media, creating fashion trends,” she adds. However, she says, it should not be forgotten that the practice of tattooing has been present in the world for nearly 4,000 years, and that tattoos have acquired different meanings and applications.

There is a lack of consensus on the addictive nature of tattoos. Some claim that they can be addictive due to the endorphins that are released to counteract the pain, which produce a sensation similar to drug use, explains Gómez. Another theory states that what drives people to get more tattoos is the fact that they will last forever, they are not temporary “like everything we find in today’s society,” she says. “Or that fills a psychic void that many teenagers don’t know how to handle.” Finally, the expert emphasizes that some experts do not believe tattoos are addictive, as the person takes their time to decide what to get, how and where, meaning it does not have the same sense of impulsiveness that is typical of many addictions.

How parents respond

There is no formula regarding what to tell a son or daughter who wants to get a tattoo. “Every family is unique, with different values, and some allow things that others don’t. Minors cannot do this without adult consent, but after they turn 18, if they want to do it, they will, even if it is in an illegal place that could put their health at risk,” Gomez states. This is why it is recommended that the parents talk about it with them, negotiate and provide all the possible information about the process.

The psychologist recommends discussing the possible negative consequences of these processes, such as infections or allergies, as well as projecting the tattoos over time, so that they understand that they are still growing and their skin can stretch, potentially damaging the artwork. “Furthermore, you have to explain that if they want to have them removed in the future, it will have to be done with a laser, an expensive, painful method that is not always effective, as it can leave scars. In addition, it is necessary to advise them: if they decide to do it, it should be done by professionals and in authorized centers, where safety is guaranteed.”

The dermatologists’ take

A professionally done tattoo should not entail significant dangers, but it is still not a risk-free practice. “In the dermatology consultation we often see different types of immediate adverse reactions, such as swelling and redness in the area, a consequence of the multiple punctures required to make a tattoo, which is considered normal and usually lasts between one and three weeks,” says María Calvo, head of Dermatology and Aesthetics at the Olympia Quirón Salud medical center in Madrid.

Tattoos can cause long-term allergic and inflammatory reactions, produced, above all, by the mercury present in red inks. Bacterial infections are also quite frequent, and there is a risk of contracting hepatitis or HIV due to the reuse of material that was previously used on an infected person, explains the dermatologist. The expert says that henna temporary tattoos are safer, but if this product is adulterated with additives it can produce reactions and cause eczema, as well as permanent allergy to dyes. As for the areas of the body that tend to have more complications, they are the cartilaginous ones, like the nose and ears.

The basic advice of dermatologists when getting a tattoo is to always go to professional shops that use authorized, sterile pigments, with a clear identification of their composition and manufacturer. Then, appropriate hygiene measures must be taken for 15 days after it is done, using an antiseptic soap and an antibiotic cream and not exposing the area to the sun for about eight weeks.

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