Submitted by Anonymous Mom
We were completely blindsided when our 15 year old son announced to us a couple of years ago that he was “transgender and pansexual.” The fact that those two descriptors were also the exact terms used by the girl he was interested in seemed even more suspicious.
Our son’s case was one of very explicit social influence. He went to a summer theater camp. He described to kids he met there feelings of deep discomfort. Even though those feelings did not relate to gender specifically, but to rather general feelings of discomfort in his body, they told him he was probably transgender.
Immediately, something very important happened for him: he was now “LGBT.” He changed all his descriptors on his social media accounts. He was quickly absorbed into the LGBT community. He spent time in an LGBT youth space, where he was welcomed with open arms and praised extravagantly for his courage. He began displaying rainbow symbols everywhere. At one point, we arrived at the airport to go visit his grandparents, and I noticed that he had used Sharpie to write “GAY” all over his sneakers.
He also went immediately to his high school teachers and asked them to use a new name and female pronouns. Luckily for us, attending a small Catholic high school means that the first thing the school did was to contact us and ask us how we wanted them to handle the situation. At that point, we had to set out some parameters. We told our son that while he could ask friends to use whatever names and pronouns he wanted, we felt it would be better to wait a bit longer for more official changes. Over the months to come, we tried to keep several principles at the forefront:
1. Lead with empathy. We emphasized that we really believed him about his general feelings of dysphoria. We tried in every way to show him that we were with him in that suffering. We gave lots of hugs.
2. Give him some space. We let him do all the things described above. We didn’t try to prevent him from wearing women’s clothes, although we did ask that certain provocative choices be confined to his bedroom (we say the same thing to one of his sisters, who sometimes tries to wear age-inappropriate clothing).
3. Set boundaries. We told him we would not call him by a new name or new pronouns — because we believed he needed more time to be sure. On a few isolated occasions, we challenged him. In one conversation, I reminded him that he was named for his grandfather, to whom he feels very close. In one conversation, I reported that some of my friends commented on what a handsome guy he is. I pointed out to him that I didn’t think he could always see that about himself.
4. Reassure him of our love. We made it completely clear to him that whatever decisions he ultimately made, we would love and support him.
5. Maintain and build connection. This is where we spent the most time, energy, and money. We looked for every way to lean in. We complimented him on the many amazing things he does and who he is. We took him out for his favorite food. We paid the ridiculous ticket prices and took him to see Hamilton and a Red Sox game. We had a sense that part of the question for him was whether he could actually see himself joining the company of adult men. So his dad, who has always been very present, leaned in even more.
We think of all this, of course, not just as “treatment” for ROGD, but as an investment in our long-term relationship with him.
Our son, now 17, has recently desisted. His experience of ROGD lasted just a little over two years.I think our son is very typical of some boys who display ROGD: he has significant ADHD, connected to very high levels of creativity and general lack-of-inhibition. He has also exhibited strong signs of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which is connected to ADHD. Adolescence in general has been pretty chaotic. He has experienced both anxiety and depression. His ROGD was a part of some really important things for him: trying to find a way out of the chaos and discomfort and trying to figure out who he is.
Adolescence is hard, and for some kids, it’s really hard. Trying out different identities is a pretty standard (and sometimes a good) way to do that. How many high school kids try on identities of “goth kid” or “athlete” or whatever? In the end, we tried to understand this as him doing what he needed to do, and just tried our best to support him in that.
Lastly, I’ll say that we also did something that parents of teenagers and young adults need to do in new ways as their kids get older: we took care of ourselves and reconfirmed boundaries in our own minds. Our kids are living their own lives, not ours. They need us to be calm, regulated, consistently loving anchors, and we do that best when we are nourishing ourselves, too.