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When teens explore their self-expression

When I was 12 years old, I wanted to get my ears pierced – for the second time. 

“If I let you do this now, what will be next?” my dad asked. “A feather ring in your nose? Tattoos?” I never got the earring.

Another time when I was steps from leaving my house – for synagogue – in a floral spandex mini skirt, my dad stopped me in my Doc Martened tracks and made me change my outfit. I never saw the skirt again.

“Most children want to start experimenting with their look at about age 10,” says Andrea Share, a family therapist and crisis counsellor in Toronto. “This coincides with the onset of puberty and a time when peers become extremely influential.” Girls usually start earlier than boys, but Andrea has seen children as young as six or seven wanting to highlight their hair for example.

“Children want to try different looks and also want to be accepted by their friends,” says Andrea. “It is the beginning of a child’s development toward becoming a teen and then adult. Social and media pressure are definitely powerful factors, but fitting in with friends becomes vital for some while others choose to exert their individuality through their appearance.”

Arguing about what is appropriate or inappropriate can be tricky, not to mention exhausting. That’s why it’s important to discuss the boundaries early on. Andrea suggests: 

  • Talk to your children regularly about the message a certain look may project. “Watch television or look through a magazine with your child to discuss other teen appearances and how we interpret a particular look and often make incorrect judgments based on first impressions.” 
  • Discuss your own family’s values to allow your children to decide what works for them, what you are willing to pay for and what they must pay for, and how they want the world to view them. “Nowadays, a mistake in judgment can be sent via cyberspace to anyone, so discussing the idea of how a teen presents herself/himself in public is important to have at many stages in a child’s development.”
  • When it comes to tattoos and piercings, which require parental consent until your child is 18, help your child understand the pros (self-expression) and cons (permanency, cost, hygiene, health risks) to help a teen develop perspective.

“A teenager’s brain is not fully developed so it is understandable that their decision-making skills are a work in progress,” says Andrea. “It is okay to give your opinion but if the teen feels they are being lectured, they will tune out. If the teen feels that you understand why he wants a tattoo or piercing, then he is more likely to discuss his ideas before following through. As the parent you still have a lot of veto power, but discussing and sharing ideas and beliefs always works better than making demands.”

A teen’s changing appearance is sometimes connected with other issues, such as depression, relationship problems, anxiety or even substance abuse. This makes it imperative that you “checkin” with your children regularly to ensure nothing else is going on. Andrea says “During the often-turbulent teen years, provide emotional support (listening rather than lecturing), have consistency with rules, and offer tons of unconditional love.”

Cracking the Code

  • Talk about dress codes and why they exist.
  • Some schools’ dress codes emphasize modesty. This is a strong message that helps children learn to respect the rules and why they are in place.
  • “As teens enter the workforce, we want them to understand how to present themselves professionally on the inside and out,” says family therapist Andrea Share.


Editor Janice Biehn explores the teen years at

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2013.

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