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One of the most difficult things about parenting a gender-questioning child today is the information asymmetry. Once a GQ kid has self-diagnosed themselves, courtesy of big tech, they have access to the entire world of transgender ideology with its seemingly endless stream of videos, articles, and social media influencers. These resources show them exactly how to act, what to say, and how to move forward (or move their parents forward) with treating and medicalizing their self-diagnosed ills.
Parents, on the other hand, are typically far less informed about gender ideology and much less tech-literate. Gen X parents, like myself, can certainly applaud themselves for being in the know when it comes to tech. After all, we witnessed firsthand the evolution of technology and how it has utterly transformed society. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think that we, in aggregate, have the same tech literacy as our children. They were born into it. They’ve known nothing else. We pride ourselves on donning a wetsuit and going swimming in the ocean; our children are the dolphins watching us bemusedly as we splash about.
If your child has decided that it’s time to go full-steam ahead down the trans pipeline, you’re probably feeling outgunned and maybe even questioning whether or not you’re a transphobe for even thinking this rush toward identity finality is inappropriate. There is no easy way out here. You’re either going to get steamrolled and potentially subject your child to a lifetime of medicalization and suffering, or you’re going to be the parent and ask the tough questions that allow the child to actually experience the difficult, yet rewarding, work of identity formation.
During our journey with our GQ kid, my husband and I have observed behaviors that you may also encounter. We hope that these tips will help you shepherd your child through adolescence.
Just remember: you’re the parent. And it’s ok to say no.
1. Family Photos: Down the Memory Hole
Many kids who are exploring a trans identity want to erase their past in the belief that it will make it easier to adopt a new self. This fundamentally flawed notion assumes that transformation requires destruction. This “all or nothing” belief is fairly common in adolescents. It’s normal to want to alleviate your child’s distress, but don’t be tempted to indulge this attempt at erasure. Family photos belong to the family, not just the child going through a period of uncertainty. Gently remind your child that the photos are shared memories, and no one person can tell the rest of the family what should be remembered. Further, if they do become trans at some point, it was a journey, and attempting to negate part of the journey is to deny the fullness of the self.
2. Pronouns: Staring into the Pool of Narcissus
Oftentimes gender uncertain kids will ask you to use different pronouns in the household. Much has been written on why this is problematic, and you can read more here, here, and here. Explain to your child that asking others to use a different pronoun is awkward and imposing. As a GC parent, you should focus on helping your kid develop resilience and self-confidence. Teach them that if you can’t be happy unless the outer world acquiesces to your worldview, you’re not going to be happy.
3. Name Games: Thanks for the Suggestion, Mom & Dad
Guess what? Hating your given name isn’t uncommon. Aversion to a particular name is nomomisia and dislike of your own name is autonomomisia. We’ve all surely met people who’ve chosen to go by a middle name or some other name for at least some portion of their lives. If your kid prefers a nickname or some other version of their given name, does it matter? This can be tricky: is it a normal, healthy development of the self, or is it just another facet of the erasure phenomenon?
4. The Affirmation Trap
Yes, the dreaded “A” word. Identity-seeking kids often want immediate affirmation. If you don’t immediately affirm, you’re labeled as transphobic. Worse, parents are told that in failing to immediately affirm they could harm their child psychologically and cause them to commit acts of self-harm. While we should affirm that a person’s lived experience is real, and meaningful, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of affirming every ephemeral belief about oneself. We as humans are meant to evolve throughout our lives. Help your child learn to understand that our self-conceptualization is fluid and ever-changing, and that knee-jerk affirmation can lead to rigidity and suffering.
5. Cross Dressing
One thing kids are told online is that cross dressing will alleviate dysphoria. However, for kids identifying as trans, cross dressing is part of social transition that can solidify a trans identity and lead to medicalization quite quickly. If you allow your child to cross dress and they receive positive feedback from peers and schools falling over themselves to appear “inclusive”, the child may be naturally inclined to seek out the next steps. Remind your kids that gender bending isn’t especially new (see 1980’s rockers for just one example) and help them explore the root causes of their discomfort with their bodies.
Along with cross dressing, kids might want to try and change their bodies. While some might suggest such behaviors are harmless, breast binding and experimentation with false breasts can have repercussions. Breast binding restricts breathing, damages breast tissue and can even break ribs. False breasts are simply one more step toward medicalization. If a child feels accepted with these behaviors, and is dependent on outside approval, they’ll keep pushing down the pathway to medicalization.
7. Threats of Self-Harm
The online “how to” guides encourage gender-curious kids to keep the suicide card up their sleeves. If mom and dad don’t quickly capitulate and get on the affirmation train, the kids are told that talking about self-harm will get their attention. There is some good news here: suicide is the most exaggerated threat and the most refuted, thankfully. Discuss with your child the cold hard facts: the suicide rate of teens identifying as trans is not improved with medical and surgical transition. It’s a difficult thing to hear when they’ve been told that transitioning is salvation, but trans identified individuals have some of the highest rates of psychological co-morbidities and suicide rates. If you believe your child is really suicidal, take them to the emergency room or call 911.
8. Can we try this at home?
Maybe your gender questioning child isn’t quite ready to assume a trans identity in the larger world. Some GC kids would prefer to “try on” their new identity at home but maintain their natal sex outside of the home. You may feel relieved that your child feels secure enough with you to ask this, but don’t amplify the cognitive dissonance. Even more importantly, don’t be the bridge to the child’s other family members such as grandparents. Learning how to present yourself to the world is a critical life skill. Help your child develop a coherent and healthy self-image.
9. Depression and Withdrawal
Many GQ kids have underlying depression and anxiety which may manifest as withdrawal from their friends and family. They may believe transition will alleviate these symptoms, but the uncomfortable reality is that social, medical, and surgical transition probably won’t help your kid. To paraphrase Thoreau, you’re just hacking at the branches, not the root of the problem. Help your kids discover outside activities, create opportunities in real life, and stay away from gender clinics and affirming therapists. Sadly, our current medical-industrial complex has no incentive to explore the underlying cause of distress.
10. Sexuality, or the lack thereof
One of the pillars of gender ideology is the notion that gender identity is an internal feeling unrelated to sexuality. Kids, often without any sexual experience, are taught to conflate gender identity and sex. The kids are told “genital preference” is transphobic and “gender attraction” is the polite way to discuss sexuality. These notions prey on internalized homophobia and harken back to the 1950s when homosexuals were punished via medicalization. Teach your child about homophobia, internalized homophobia, and the history of gay conversion therapy/punishment.
Remember: you’re the parent. Your child may be facing difficult questions about their identity. They may be gay, or gender non-conforming and, indeed, some of them may suffer from serious dysphoria that needs mental or medical support. As the parent, your job is to guide them through the difficult waters of adolescence and get them safely to the shores of adulthood.
Science tells us that the frontal cortex is not fully developed until our mid- to late-twenties. In every other aspect of life, this is well-recognized and embedded into our healthcare, financial, and social systems. Try to sign up for a mobile phone contract at age 17 and you’ll be reminded of this fact. You, as the adult in the room, have the fully developed frontal cortex and the reasoning powers that come with that. Use them.
The family unit is under threat as never before and specifically gender ideology. Maintaining family cohesiveness can be difficult when a child identifies as trans but it’s not impossible, and in fact, a strong family bond can be protective. Members of strong families communicate with each other, all parents are on the same page, and firm but loving boundaries are clearly articulated and enforced. Adolescence is a time of identity exploration and tumultuous hormonal fluctuations. Help your child see that families are forever, and clothes, bodies, and identities change over time.
To our own child we said early, and often, “there is nothing to do now, just be”. It wasn’t easy, but it worked. Our child’s need to identify as trans subsided as he became more comfortable in his body and mind.
Author: Emily Gordon is a mother, wife, nature lover, and a medical practitioner. Her son identified as trans for about a year and a half before he started accepting his body and sexuality. Our journey continues.