If your child says they are gender non-binary, transgender, pansexual, or asexual, I have some advice. When they tell you this interesting news, respond by saying, “Oh,” without alarm, like you would if they told you they were going to Walgreens to pick up a few things. Then be curious. Ask how they came to that conclusion, and how the new insight makes them feel. And whatever you do, do not be judgmental.
Teens need to separate from their families of origin. It’s in their DNA. It is their job. They also have brains that are not yet fully formed. Our job is to encourage their individuation and differentiation, while providing guardrails to the excesses that could have permanent consequences.
Those guardrails do not include opposition to their gender and sexual exploration, at least not unless they are wanting surgeries or medical treatments that will permanently change their bodies. No matter what your evangelical church is telling you, no hospital or physician anywhere in the United States is doing gender affirming surgery on minors. Very few are doing any surgeries at all. The hormonal treatments that are prescribed are reversible.
Do you remember when Goth was a thing? Yeah, for some kids, all things gender is today’s version of Goth. It is a chance to show your independence and say, “I’m not like you, Mom and Dad.” I mean, think about it. Why on earth would you ever leave the people who have provided your every need unless there was something seriously wrong with them? They need to find fault with you. It makes it easier to leave the nest. And besides, there are, in fact, plenty of things wrong with you, and by the time your kids hit their teen years, they’ve figured out what those things are.
If your child is in their intense phase of separation, what do they need from you? They need curiosity, understanding, and patience. Your child might indeed be gender non-binary, transgender, pansexual or asexual. But the statistics say it isn’t likely. The number of people who are transgender stays steady at around .58 percent. Yes, about one half of one percent. The number who are non-binary is similar.
Whatever is happening in your child’s phase of visible separation, be curious and talkative with them. Listen. If you listen long enough, they will eventually share the pleasure of their emerging souls with you.
Be patient. Be glad your children are being raised in a time in which they can age-appropriately try on different identities in a safe environment. Encourage their exploration, and their tolerance of others. Don’t rush them to the courthouse to help change their name yet. If necessary, that can come later. But you can call them the name they prefer for as long as they prefer it, whether it be a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Let it be an adventure.
Are there exceptions? Of course, there are. If your child from an early age has been protesting that they are not the gender listed on their birth certificate, you should listen up. Kids who present as transgender at four are likely to be transgender at forty. On the other hand, if your child declares at thirteen that he or she is transgender, then you might want to just abide, and see what happens. There is a good chance it is a phase of their necessary differentiation from you.
When should you be concerned? If your child becomes sullen and withdrawn, with few friends and consistently dark moods, it may be time for intervention. And anytime a child threatens to harm themselves, it should be taken seriously. It is not a time for watching and waiting. It is time for the help of a therapist or physician well-educated in the issues common to adolescents.
It is also important to note that things are hard for all kids right now. They just finished two years of education in front of a screen. They are behind and they know it. And the pressures they face at school and with their peers have been horribly exacerbated by social media. They are more likely to need help in life much earlier than we did, and we need to provide the help they need.
Now, a word about the politicians who are trading children’s mental health for a few right-wing votes. Shame on them. Children are dying. The anti-trans laws like those recently passed in Texas are terrifying in their disregard of science, and for any positive regard for the children those lawmakers are sworn to serve.
At our town board meeting two weeks ago, we talked about the mental health of the teens in our town. I took a long walk with a fellow board member the following Saturday, and we considered what we might do to provide the help our kids need. That is the appropriate response to adolescents, not the book banning, treatment prohibiting, reactionary rhetoric of politicians and self-righteous evangelicals.
I have five granddaughters, all between the ages of 12 and 14. It is so much fun watching them unfold into the fulness of themselves, unencumbered by the religious purity movement of my generation. They are full of themselves in all the right ways. Yet, I see them struggle beneath the weight of expectations and I am grateful they have parents who see them, who truly see them, and who are committed to providing them just the right amount of freedom to come into themselves.
This living is serious business. I have a friend about my age who says growing old is not for sissies. I agree, but I would add that all of life in the year 2022 is not for sissies. These are not easy times.