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Ask The Expert: My Daughter Got a Tattoo Without My Permission

Dear Your Teen

My 16-year-old step-daughter had been asking her father and me if she could get a tattoo for a while. We tried to explain to her that this was a permanent decision, and that it would be better to wait until she was at least 18 to consider this. I reminded her that things go in and out of fashion. Would she be wearing the same clothes ten years from now? Fifty years from now? At least you can change the clothes. A tattoo is a fashion statement for life.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against tattoos. My friends have them. They often represent great meaning or artistic expression to someone. My husband even has one. (Although his tattoo a good example of one he got at 18 and now regrets.)

When all of this “reasoning” with her about tattoos failed and she still kept asking, we plain out said “No.” It wasn’t happening under our roof. So she found someone else who would. Her mother.

They both knew that it was against our wishes, but both ignored that. They went on a weekend they were spending together. Her mother has several tattoos, so I think this was something she thought they could bond over. (They’ve had a rocky relationship over the years.)

When my step-daughter returned home and showed it to us, naturally we were furious – furious at her for doing this against our rules, and furious with her mother for making it happen. Did my step-daughter do this as teenage rebellion? Or did she do it to reconnect with her mom? Was the peer pressure teens often experience actually coming from her mom? Was her mom acting as a peer to reconnect with her?

What would you do?

EXPERT | Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D.

The issue of teens and tattoos is a dilemma that many parents struggle with. And, like you suggested, even parents with tattoos often encourage their teens to hold off and think hard about their tattoos because they are not a temporary accessory. Your stepdaughter, like many of her peers, most likely wanted to get a tattoo for many reasons including asserting her independence, doing something that is exciting and also as an additional way to bond with her peers. As you know, tattoos have become very mainstream in our culture.

I certainly understand your concern about your 16 year old getting a permanent tattoo after you and her dad had given her a hard no. I consistently encourage parents to “buy time” with their teens who request permission to get a tattoo. There are many ways to do this including suggesting the idea of re-visiting the idea of the tattoo at regular intervals to see if the teen continues to desire the tattoo over the course of time. 

In your situation, you had an additional complication and that, of course, was the mom’s differing opinion and willingness to take a 16-year-old to get the tattoo. It is unclear if this was a way for mother and daughter to bond. It could simply have been the simplest and most convenient way for your stepdaughter to get her tattoo.  I can’t even begin to guess whether or not this was a bonding experience. It seems to me that it would take more than a single tattoo to repair a rocky relationship.

Additionally, it is difficult to say if the mother was exerting pressure on her daughter to get a tattoo or if she was acting like a friend to reconnect with her daughter. You may never know the answers to these questions and we can only speculate.

Getting A Tattoo Without (All) Parents Knowing

I understand that your stepdaughter’s behavior was infuriating. I also understand your anger at the mother. Nonetheless, I am always an advocate of preserving relationships rather than destroying their sometimes fragile fabric with anger. The tattoo is done and your daughter has certainly not kept it a secret. My best advice for you and your husband is to move forward and attempt to be proactive about such situations in the future.

Is it possible for you, your husband and your daughter’s biological mother to meet and talk about how you will handle these requests and situations in the future? I hope that that is possible. In the meantime, you and your husband can let your daughter know that you are disappointed but I don’t feel that harsh punishment is warranted. After all, it is your daughter’s body and it is she who will have to deal with the tattoo’s permanency.

Keep in mind, that she can always consider laser removal or tattoo revision in the future. It’s so hard to control all of our teens’ behavior. Get some distance from this situation and hit the reset button regarding the relationship with your stepdaughter. I can almost hear your sigh but that’s what our kids do. They confuse, defy and irritate us when they are not following direction. Get a good night of sleep knowing that you did all that you could and start tomorrow with a clean slate. This is not easy but it is necessary for the well-being of the family.

Dr. Barbara Greenberg is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of teens, children, and families. She is the co-author of Teenage as a Second Language. She writes and consults for several publications and frequently appears on TV. You can find her work on her website

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