– By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D.
My husband and I are worried because our 14-year-old daughter thinks that “he” is transgendered. It’s true that she’s always been interested in more masculine activities, and this past year she announced to us that she should’ve been born a boy. She told us that we’re now supposed to call him by his new male name and use the pronoun “he” but we are not ready to do that. I guess it’s great for Caitlyn Jenner to come into her own, but Caitlin’s story has bolstered my kid to think that she too will have some sort of glamorous coming out story one day. We’ve been very patient of our daughter’s masculine pursuits and attitude, but things are getting out of hand for us. She now wants to join an LGBT group this summer that we are against. We recently looked at her Internet history that showed that she is researching transgender topics. She is also reaching out to transgender teens about lifestyle changes. We’ve had horrible fights over the issue because we won’t use her new name and she is usually angry with us these days. I know this probably isn’t politically correct for me to say this, but life is hard enough being normal. My husband and I can only imagine how much harder her life would be as a transgendered man and we don’t want that for her. We would be grateful for your guidance and feedback on how to fix this.
The news of Caitlyn Jenner has created quite a stir. Certainly, her transformation from man to woman is a wonderful thing for transgendered individuals who are often misunderstood, or worse, marginalized and discriminated against societally. Since the Vanity Fair article, the topic is being discussed more openly and this will likely lead to greater acceptance for the transgendered way of life and community as whole.
I am not surprised to receive your letter, and as a child psychologist, I have mixed feelings about the increased media attention on trangenderism for children in recent years. And now with the Caitlyn Jenner story, I am concerned that certain children will be over encouraged or rushed to see themselves as being transgendered when they ultimately may not be.
You should know that recent transgender research supports the position that gender identity may be more biologically hard-wired than previously believed – genes, chromosomes and one’s endocrinology appear to be the main determents that form and solidify adult gender identity. Other recent research has shown that gender identity in children can be deeply rooted at a young age and that these children are not confused at all about who they are.
However, there is also research to findings showing that children can be confused about their gender identity, but then their gender identity matches up with their biological sex later in life as adults. Moreover, from my experience as a child psychologist, I have worked with a number of children who have experienced themselves as being transgendered at a young age but then grew up to not be.
I understand your concern for your daughter, but you and your husband will need to continue to be patient with her as she continues to mature and discover who she is. Right now you have competing needs with your daughter around her gender identity; the topic is a very sensitive and charged one for you all with multiple layers of thoughts, emotions and meaning. Your daughter likely becomes upset with you because in her mind you are not accepting her for who she believes she is or wants to be. Your daughter needs your support and love, and if you continue to fight with her she could start to feel badly about herself or even unloved by you both.
I think you need to move away from having competing needs to having more complimentary ones in parenting your daughter. I recommend that you start with a talk where you respectfully and lovingly let your daughter know how you feel about her gender identity and what your concerns are for her. You can also let her know what you are comfortable doing in support of her and what you are not. Be careful not to express disappointment or judgment; the conversation should be a positive and proactive one, so be careful not to come off as being sad or defeated in finding compromises or collaborative solutions with your daughter regarding her gender identity.
The following are few points to consider with your daughter:
Support your daughter’s developing gender choices and interests. As parents, you want to create a diverse environment with various opportunities. Allow your daughter to make choices and to explore who she is without judgment. If she shows or expresses an interest in cross-gender activities, be as supportive as possible. Thus, I think you should allow her to join the LGBT group, but at the same time, you can expose her to a variety of other activities this summer. We are currently running a therapy group at our practice for teens that believe they are transgendered. The purpose of the group is not to influence or direct the gender identity of any individual, rather, the group is safe place for teens to openly discuss and make sense of their thoughts, feelings and wishes with others who are going through the same thing. The group has also helped to connect parents who are working to understand their teens’ needs.
Support your daughter’s gender style. Some children are more masculine or feminine in style, so be respectful of who your daughter is and do not try to change her. I encourage you and your husband to support her clothing choices, hairstyle, and even her gestures and mannerisms. Of course, offer parental guidance and direction when appropriate, but do not challenge her simply because what she is wearing or how she is presenting herself to the world makes you uncomfortable.
Be cautious when considering life-changing interventions or treatments for your daughter before adulthood. In my experience as a child psychologist, transgendered children are excited to match-up or complete their gender identity to their biological sex as quickly as they can. While still controversial, hormonal treatments and certain interventions are becoming more acceptable. And many transgendered female teens elect to get bilateral mastectomies (‘top surgery’) prior to turning 18, with some surgeons conducting the surgery on minors with parental consent. If your daughter begins to discuss hormone treatment or top surgery with you, I recommend that you weigh all of the possible advantages and problems that could occur with a specialist. Given the seriousness of these sorts of treatments and interventions, I also think that it is always wise to get a second or even third opinion from respected specialists in the field before making possible life changing and/or permanent changes for your daughter.
To your point, there is also no doubt that a transgendered life is much harder than a “normal” life. Transgendered individuals experience all sorts of discrimination, and they have higher rates of mental health problems and suicides. As parents, we always want the best for our children, but it is possible that being transgendered, as difficult as that seems to you, may be what’s best for your daughter.
Your daughter needs to explore who she is, and she needs your understanding, acceptance and love to be able to do that. With time, it is my hope that your daughter will mature through adolescence and into adulthood with a solid sense of self for who she is truly meant to be.
Michael Oberschneider “Dr. Mike” is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological Services, a private mental health clinic comprised of 12 MD and PhD level mental health clinicians. Go to www.Ashburnpsych.com or call 703 723-2999 to learn more.