Tattoos. Piercings. Hair dye. In her new book "How to Raise Your Parents: A Teen Girl's Survival Guide" (Chronicle), author Sarah O'Leary Burningham gives advice on how to handle these tricky issues. To get the scoop, she surveyed more than 2,000 teens and hundreds of parents—and talked with many of them, too. And as a 28-year-old and eldest of four siblings, including a brother in high school and sister in college, she's got some recent firsthand experience with modern adolescents. "Teenagers get such a bad rap," she says. "They care so much what their parents think—so much more than parents normally guess." Here are her tips on talking to teens about staying healthy.
1. To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo. Teens often think they want tattoos—but later on are "really glad they didn't get them," says Burningham. "You change so much, and your personality changes." She suggests taking advantage of "temporary options," such as wash-off tattoos or henna tattoos that last a few weeks. "There's an option to express a little bit of style and be creative, but you're not going to be living with it three or four years later," she says. "You want to make sure it's something that when you're 25 or 30 you really want."
2. Perils of Piercing. Remind teens not to do it themselves. In her book, Burningham includes a cautionary tale of a teen girl who pierced her own belly button by using ice from her home freezer and her mom's old sewing needles. The result: an infection that left a "gnarly" scar. Check with groups like the Association of Professional Piercers and its safepiercing.org Web site. The Mayo Clinic site, also gives good advice. "You just don't want to get it done anywhere," she says. "You're putting a hole in your body, so you want to be very safe." Too many unusual piercings may cause problems not just with health but with potential employers. "There is a concern of first impression," she says. "You need to think about what you look like because some people can be very judgmental."
3. Color Fast. Fortunately, hair dye is usually less risky than tattoos and piercings. And of course it will grow out. Parents are more comfortable with hair dye than with other personal-style statements. Moms often say they want to be at the salon the first time a child gets her hair dyed. To teens, Burningham says, "it's just keeping your parents involved in the process." Consider trying temporary, spray-on hair dyes that can be washed out. Burningham herself tried Jerome Russell's colored stuff and says "it came right out in the shower." The bleach in hair dye can burn eyes and scalps. So get a professional to apply it.
4. The Talk. "Parents need to sit down and talk with their teenagers straight up. Teenagers are not stupid," says Burningham. She knows it's hard for parents to be really open about sex and sexually transmitted diseases, but she says "an honest conversation" is vital. There are no hard rules on how to talk about birth control. "How you handle those situations is family to family," she says. The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open.
5. Safety Net. Everyone hears the horror stories about teens meeting up with dangerous strangers on the Internet. Parents need to explain why posting photos online is so risky. They also need to tell kids what kind of information is never OK to give out (last names, address, etc.). "There is a naivete that comes from teenagers," says Burningham. "[But] they're going to think twice when they're posting a photo if they had a conversation with their parents about what's appropriate. A teenager who's never talked about that might not have that moment of clarity."
She suggests that parents themselves get tech savvy so they know what's going on. "Parents need to get educated, and they need to set up ground rules from a very early age with their teenagers," she says. "They need to decide how old is appropriate for a My Space page." Kids officially need to be 14, but Burningham found many who had them when they were younger. Parents who install parental spyware on teens' computers to monitor where they roam in cyberspace should tell the teenager it's there so that they "approach the Web with caution," she says. "They need to be upfront about it ...You want your teenager to trust you." Don't go behind teens' backs to read their e-mail (it's private), and tell them you're planning to read their blogs (even though they're a different issue since they're public).
6. Cigarettes and Booze. You may think kids know that you don't want them drinking or smoking, but it's worth saying again. "If you haven't had that discussion, you should," says Burningham. "Those are bad for teenagers. They're illegal. If something is illegal, you should not be doing it."
7. Sleep It Up. Teens need at least eight hours of shut-eye but often don't get it. Consider limiting sleepovers to just one per weekend. Girls in particular love sleepovers because "they're a big social thing," says Burningham. "[But] they get tired. Everyone gets worn down." Implement curfews, too. More than 90 percent of the teens Burningham talked to had a midnight curfew. She sees no need reason to be out later. "You need your sleep," she says. Also, parents and teens need to talk about shutting off cell phones at night. Burningham spent a night with her younger sister—and woke up three times because people sent text messages. "I was exhausted," she says.
8. Wheel Advice. Parents need to talk about wearing a seatbelt and being a responsible driver. Burningham notes that rapper Kanye West, who was in a car crash, is alive because he was wearing a seatbelt and even tells people, "thank God I'm not too cool for the safety belt." And don't be shy about reminding them to wear a helmet when biking or skateboarding.
For more tips, see Burningham's Web site.