Blue hair, body-piercings, and tattoos: how to manage your teen’s self-expression
By Dr. Justin Coulson |
Blue hair, body-piercings

“It’s my life and I’ll do what I want!”

This has been the cry of the vast majority of adolescents for decades as they have tried to figure out who they are and what they’re about.

Parent’s responses have ranged from “Over my dead body” to “Good luck kid” and everything in between as we’ve tried to guide our children to responsible adulthood.

Piercings, hair-dye, shaved heads, noisy music, and a range of other attempts at self expression drive us mad!

From around the age of 14 our adolescents usually begin a challenging process of constructing an identity – that is, working out who they are and what they stand for. And while it’s terribly trying for us, as their parents, it’s perhaps even more difficult for our kids.

What to do when self-expression gets ugly

Self-expression and identity exploration usually get ugly in one of two ways.

First, our teens, who were once well-adjusted, thriving kids:

  • descend into uninterested students,
  • isolate themselves with their phone or with friends,
  • get involved with bullying,
  • start early sexual experimentation,
  • and begin doing illegal things (e.g., drugs or stealing).

These types of behaviour, especially if combined, require intervention. You may have some success talking with your child and the school. But often additional help may be needed.

The second way that self-expression can get ugly is that our teens will “try on” an identity that we feel terribly uncomfortable with. It might be Goth black, or death-metal punk. It may be the misogynistic, crudely-laced rap/hip-hop music. Or it might be crazy hair and piercings.

Should I step in, or step back?

As our teens develop their identity, it can be hard to know whether to intervene, or give them space. Your family values and circumstances will dictate whether intervention is necessary. But remember, saying “no” to a teen who is asking “Who am I” can provoke strong resistance.

A fairly general rule is to intervene fast if your child is struggling with the first issue (school disengagement, bullying, drugs, theft, early sexual experimentation).

If your child is getting ugly hair and listening to ugly music, you might find that what works best is to set some basic limits (to protect younger siblings, for example), and give them some space.

But remember, there are some laws regarding how expressive our teens are allowed to be.

Terrible hair

There are, unfortunately, no laws dictating what teens can do to their hair. Some hairstyles may look like crimes against humanity. You’ll cringe, the grandparents will gasp, but the hair will grow back. And if you don’t make too big a deal about things, the kids will grow out of it. (Ed. There may however be a hairstyle policy at your child's school which they will be expected to follow.)

Of course, stating an expectation is a perfectly necessary and responsible thing for a parent to do, and you should – but then let it go. Stating it every time you look at your child will only make your child feel hated, and she’ll loathe you in return.

Piercings & Tattoos

Unlike a lot of other countries, New Zealand does not have a legal age restriction for body piercings and tattoos. However, some regional councils and local businesses have their own bylaws or a code of ethics that imposes restrictions on those under 18 getting piercings or tattoos without parental permission. A tattoo artist will usually require a consent form to be completed. Those under 16 years old must have a parent or guardian sign the form and some local bylaws raise this age of consent to 18.

So how do I encourage self-expression in less permanent ways?

  • Stay connected - Without question, your relationship with your teen will be the biggest protective factor in their identity development and their ongoing wellbeing. Keep your relationship positive, regardless of how hard that may be.
  • Stay calm and model mature behaviour - Remember that teenagers love to argue. It’s how they sharpen their developing cognitive skills (and build their identity – based on opposition to what you think).
  • Ask questions - Let your teen think through why having purple hair is OK, or why multiple piercings should be allowed without permission from parents, or how legalising heroin injecting rooms is a good idea, or why hooking up is totally cool. Often your teen will give you an answer he doesn’t agree with to save face, but in so doing, he’ll talk himself out of his crazy ideas.
  • State your standards clearly - Make sure your adolescents know what your expectations are.
  • Always remember that there’s a real person that you love irrationally and completely inside that teenager - Our teens are relying on us to love them at their most unlovable.
Most teens will do some stuff that drives us crazy. It might be dumb. It may make us gulp. There’s no question that we’d rather they not do that! But for the most part, it’s inevitable.
Identity development can be messy business. It’s irritating, often unattractive, and provocative. But it’s a necessary step in our children’s development – and it only lasts a short while. And ultimately, it is our relationship that offers protection, acceptance, and love, that will be the foundation that they return to, and ultimately build their identity on.
  • This article was written for Kidspot and is based on an article originally posted by Dr Justin Couslon on with editing by the Kidspot NZ team. Sources include Drinkwise Australia
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