Cosmetic Surgery for Teenagers

Vincent N. Zubowicz, MD

Article by
Atlanta Plastic Surgeon

The teenage years mark the psychological transition from child to adulthood. This formative period goes far in determining the emotional mechanisms of later life. Any elective cosmetic surgery consideration must embrace these psychosocial dynamics. The experience must be positive and strengthen the personality.
First and foremost, it is the parent who ultimately decides what is best for their teenager. The operative consent must be endorsed by the parent and affirmation of the surgical event by mother and father is a requirement for success. All parties should be fully aware of what is at stake and the real reasons for pursuing an aesthetic procedure.

Cosmetic surgery does not change personality. If some deep seated emotional conflict is expected to be addressed by a scalpel, the results might not only be disappointing, they may be tragic. Surgery changes physical features, not personality structure.

For the most part, I eschew cosmetic surgery in teenagers. There are, of course, exceptions. Never is an operation in order for a whim. Just like a tattoo, it can’t really be undone completely. There must be a formal deliberation process with a rational conclusion. This demands, to a large part, a mature mind that has some experience with choices and consequences. Add the parents’ role in the matter, and the pool of patients becomes small.

We have patients with developmental defects that are properly addressed in the child and teenage years. A good example is the patient with cleft lip and/or palate. The average cleft patient undergoes about 6 operations before adulthood. Although many of these operations are considered “cosmetic” in the strictest of definitions, they, practically viewed, treat errors of development. The psychological benefits to this group are almost always highly favorable.

There are also the exceptional teenage patients who benefit from cosmetic procedures such as rhinoplasty (nose surgery), breast augmentation, or body contouring. The selection process is critical when elective cosmetic surgery is considered. Parents and patient must see the obstacle to be cleared by the operation as an emotional triviality even though the physical change may be dramatic. When this is the case, the young adult can be highly rewarded with an aesthetic treatment.

There are plastic surgical procedures that are as much functional as cosmetic. Breast reduction is a good example. Most young women who seek this surgery look forward to the functional rewards. Any aesthetic improvement is incidental. The plastic surgeon dwells on the aesthetic consequences often much more than the prospective patient.

There is a role for aesthetic surgery in teenagers. Whereas patient selection (and all that goes into it) is important for any operation in any age group, the psychological consequences for the teenager require more diligence by the surgeon. Furthermore, the parents are part of the equation which is not an issue when the patient is an adult. With proper effort, the young patients who would be psychologically scarred by such surgery are excluded and those occasional patients who will benefit are included.