When a teenager tells their parents that they’ve gotten a tattoo, often the parents’ eyes will bulge out of their skull and they’ll go a funny red color. Of course this is by design – often the teenager will at least partially have gotten the tattoo in order to illicit a response. But why are teenagers so hell-bent on giving their parents panic attacks? And why is this demographic so interested in body modification to begin with?
Being a teenager is certainly difficult and involves a large number of physical and psychological changes that can be very challenging for them to deal with. Getting tattoos is one option that can help them to cope with these changes and in many ways it is also a direct result of the state of mind that adolescence leaves them in. Trying to understand the motivations and reasons behind a teenager’s decision to tattoo themselves can help parents to become more sympathetic to their children and also to help potentially talk them out of decisions they may ultimately come to regret.
Individuation and Identity Formation
One possible explanation for a teenager’s decision to get tattoos is explained by the psychological terms ‘individuation’ and ‘identity formation’. This was also referred to by psychologist Erik Erikson as ‘identity versus role confusion’.
Whatever you call it, this is a stage during a teenager’s development where they will likely begin struggling with their identity and with deciding on who they want to be. This is the point in the teenager’s life where they will first start to remove themselves from their parent’s shadows and start making choices about the adult they want to grow into. As a result, they will often begin to ‘try out’ lots of different roles almost as if trying on hats in a clothes shop.
It’s for this reason that teenagers will often change social groups, develop new hobbies and radically alter their appearance. One moment a teenager might decide they want to be a ‘goth’ and start wearing lots of black eyeliner, the next they might decide they’re a ‘skater’ and start hanging out at skate parks. Similarly they might be passionate about martial arts one week and an artist the next. This is a normal part of a teenager’s development as they try to find the roles that best suit them.
In this context, getting a tattoo could just be another example of your teenager ‘trying out’ a certain appearance.
This is also one of the big reasons that teenagers will try to rebel against their parents at this age. In order to become their own people, teenagers need to break away from their parents. Getting tattoos is one way that they can do this and make a decision for themselves that their parents likely wouldn’t have made for them…
The Teenage Brain
Another element that may make a teenager somewhat more likely to make the decision to get a tattoo, is the fact that their brain is going through a number of changes resulting in a very unique state.
The teenager’s brain is still developing but crucially not every brain area will be developing at the same rate (1). Thus, some areas of the teenager’s brain will be fully formed to the point of being almost ‘adult’ while other areas will be lagging behind and will be much closer to that of a child.
As a teenager, your prefrontal cortex – which is responsible for decision making and logical reasoning – will be developed almost to the same level as an adult’s. At the same time though, the areas in charge of emotion such as the hypothalamus, are not as fully formed resulting in the relatively impaired ability to control emotions.
Combine this then with the hormonal changes that teenagers go through, which lead to heightened levels of testosterone, estrogen and other chemicals. In short, the teenager is very much more driven by their emotions and their impulses which causes them to act more impulsively.
At the same, a teenager is more likely to feel the need to express their emotions. One of the common reasons that people get tattoos is to show something is important to them or to generally express themselves. A heightened depth of emotion might well then lead to the need to tattoo a crying clown on your back. It’s only when you cheer up that this might then seem a little… dramatic.
It’s also the development of the emotional areas of the brain that make ‘fitting in’ so important for teenagers. This is also likely an evolutionary phenomenon too, seeing as teenagers will need to form their own social groups as they enter adulthood. If a teenager wants to fit in with a group who all also have tattoos then, the pressure to get one will be especially strong. Tattoos are often and historically used as a way to demonstrate group affiliation.
Teenagers also experience a lot of physical changes as their bodies develop, they’ll be getting taller, they’ll be developing their secondary sex characteristics, they’ll be getting acne and even their voices will change. The amount the body changes between the ages of 13-18 is huge and this can lead to mixed feelings from the teenager who might be experiencing an identity crisis as a result or just not enjoying the loss of control over their own appearance.
When you consider this aspect, it may be a little easier to understand the desire to get a tattoo. The teenager is going through many physical changes anyway… what’s one more? And as a bonus, this is a change that the teenager is at least able to control.
It’s also interesting to consider the sexual angle. This is the first time in their lives that teenagers will experience sexual impulses and it is the first time that they will be an object of sexualization. It may be no coincidence then that many tattoos are sexual in nature – either depicted sexual images or being located on or near to erogenous zones.
Looking Tough/Feeling Grown-Up
At that awkward point between being a child and an adult, many teenagers will be pushing hard to try and earn the respect of those around them and to prove that they are in fact closer to the latter than the former. Teenagers thus want to look mature and they want to look tough.
Getting a tattoo is often designed to make a person look tougher and more intimidating and this is likely to have a big appeal to teenagers who are struggling to be taken seriously and to establish themselves as dominant figures in their social circle. This is often apparent in the nature of the tattoo itself, or its positioning.
We have gone over a few of the reasons that teenagers might be more likely to choose to get tattoos but there are many more besides these that should be considered.
In an extensive survey, one of the more common reasons given for getting a tattoo was ‘no particular reason’ (2). Others said it ‘looked nice’.
In other words, there may be a temptation to overthink the teenager’s motivation for getting a tattoo, or to think that it must be a result of their hormone-addled teenage brain. In many cases though, teenagers get tattoos simply because they want to and because they think it suits them. Often there doesn’t need to be a complex reason for getting a tattoo and so you shouldn’t instantly assume that your teenager doesn’t know what they’re doing. This is something to bear in mind when you approach your teenager, as accusing them of making an irrational decision is only likely to stir up their need for rebellion.
Why Some Teenagers Keep Getting Tattoos?
But what if it’s not just one tattoo but twenty? Some teenagers will continue to modify their body even after they’ve already gotten a few tattoos and this can be worrying for the parent.
The thing to be aware of here, is that getting a tattoo can actually be quite addictive (3). The experience itself can lead to the release of dopamine – the reward chemical – in the brain, which may make it addictive. At the same time, it’s possible to get addicted to the feeling of excitement in the build up to getting the tattoo and to the reactions of those around you (positive or negative).
If you suspect your teenager might be addicted to tattoos, then you may wish to consider speaking to them and encouraging them to get counselling for their problem. This will not be easy however and it’s important to remember that tattoos in themselves are not ‘harmful’ – even if you disagree with them.
In conclusion then, understanding the motivations that teenagers might have for getting tattoos means remembering the myriad different physical and mental changes that they are undergoing, their need to fit in and their pressure to find an ‘identity’. Knowing which of these reasons may have influenced them most in their decision can be helpful in guiding the correct response and in facilitating conversation with said teenager. To try and decide which of the above possible explanations fits, consider the nature of the tattoo and the emotional state of your teenager. If the tattoo is of a flaming skull then this possibly isn’t them missing their Grandparents. If it’s a pink bunny rabbit, they probably aren’t trying to look tough.
At the same time though, it’s also crucial to understand that they are also their own people already – and there’s a good chance that their decision to get a tattoo is simply based on their appreciation of body art. It’s too late to turn back the clock now, so try to be understanding and accepting of who they are and what they choose to do with their body.