05-17-2021 10:02 AM - last edited on 05-17-2021 10:41 AM by Janine-RO
My oldest daughter 17 tattooed my 13 year old son. What should I do? I’m deeply upset.
For more context, she tattoed an “angel number" of small size on his upper thigh. They both hid it from me. I have absolutely no idea when she did this or how long they've been hiding this. She has been practicing tattooing since she was 15 under the circumstances that she wouldn't tattoo herself or anyone else. She has broken both of these rules. The tattoo doesn't look bad however I'm extremely upset. I don't know what to do because she's very independent and never home nor does she seem to learn from punishments like taking phone and car away. They both are very intelligent unique kids and never have done something like this before. How should I punish both of them? I would prefer a bigger punishment for my daughter. I appreciate any advice. My daughter is also bipolar and I don't want to give her a punishment that could spiral.
Being upset is a very natural response when your children have both broken rules and have also tried to hide this from you. It's really encouraging that despite being upset you are taking the time to think about the appropriate response, rather than responding based on anger.
When a teenager breaks a rule which they have never broken before, apart from thinking about what the consequences should be, it can be really helpful to identify what might have led to this rule being broken.
This can be important because by understanding what led to the behaviour, you’ll be in a better position to prevent it happening again. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to ask your children about their reasons. It’s important to ask about this in a way which is genuinely curious and seeking to understand, rather than accusing, if you want to get a helpful response.
As well as you understanding their perspective, it can also really help if they are able to understand yours. If your daughter doesn’t understand the reason for the rule about not tattooing others (particularly someone of your son’s age), she is less likely to follow it. The reasons for the rules may seem obvious to you, but that doesn’t mean that they are obvious to your children. That doesn’t mean that your children need to agree with your rules in order for you to expect them to be followed, but having a clear understanding of the reason for rules can be important, particularly as teens get older.
Given your daughter’s longstanding interest in tattooing, it may be something she is interested in pursuing professionally at some point in the future. She may not have considered the legal consequences of tattooing someone under 18 without parental consent, but I would consider letting her know that this is something which could have resulted in legal consequences (I’m not suggesting that you pursue legal action, but I think it’s important that she is aware of this risk). This isn’t to scare her, but because it is actually important information for her to have.
You’ll notice that I’m using the term ‘consequences’ instead of ‘punishment’. It can be helpful to think in these terms because the goal is to teach a lesson to prevent future misbehaviour, rather than to create distress.
I can tell you’re a really caring parent, and want to make sure that your response doesn’t cause harm to your daughter. It’s important that consequences don’t have unintended results like socially isolating someone, or stopping them from being able to engage in helpful strategies they use to manage their mental health (for instance, if someone has a privilege taken away, it’s important that they still have some enjoyable activities they are allowed, as this can be important in managing mood). It’s also important not to withdraw affection in response to rule-breaking, and make it clear that even if you are angry or upset, you still love and care about them.
In terms of the consequences of this behaviour, what works best is often individual to the person and family. Whenever possible, it’s helpful to discuss the consequences of rule-breaking ahead of time, as part of a conversation about family rules (there is a helpful guide to this here: https://raisingchildren.net.au/teens/behaviour/behaviour-management-ideas/family-rules). Of course, sometimes (like in this case) this isn’t possible. Whenever possible, consequences should be related to the behaviour that you wish to discourage. For instance, you may wish to consider whether it’s reasonable for your daughter to not be able to use her tattooing equipment for a period of time (this doesn’t need to be a long period of time, just enough for her to consider the consequence of using it in a way which is against the rules). Make sure whatever you decide is something you feel you will be able to stick to.
It’s also important to remember that almost all children or teens break the rules at some point - it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t provide consequences, but it can be helpful to remind yourself of this - if this is the first time they’ve broken the rules in a serious way, you’re probably doing a great job as a parent.
Linda is a psychologist experienced in working with people across the lifespan, including teenagers and their families, in a variety of settings, and is ReachOut's Clinical Lead.