There are many factors that seem to impact to the emergent population of gender-questioning adolescents. This post seeks to explore just one aspect of the phenomenon.
Heather Heying is an evolutionary biologist, and self-professed “professor-in-exile”.
Quote from Heather’s video: “You need to be willing to take risks such that when your kids do hit 18 or 20, you know that they’re actually already on their way to being adults. And that it’s going to require backing off and letting them do some of their learning on their own and knowing that that’s gonna result in some harm coming to them and it’s gonna be physical harm, its gonna be psychological harm, it’s gonna be intellectual harm … but frankly the lack of any kind of harm that a lot of kids are experiencing is part of why they’re now saying ‘speech is violence.’ Right, I mean it’s part of how we get there.”
As a parent, think about your reaction to this. Actually, feel your reaction. If you reflexively felt judgmental, wondering how a mother can be so flippant about her children’s safety, I understand. Or maybe you felt enthusiastic that finally, someone was asserting a sorely needed reminder – that kids must learn how to cope with even the ugliest parts of life. I understand that too.
What about personal risk-taking in your own life? How does that impact your ability to let your kids be exposed to risk?
It may not be obvious how all of this relates to gender identity. But if you’ve ever wondered about your own child: how such a cautious, safe kid could enthusiastically consider a lifetime of hormones and surgery, and misunderstand the risks so gravely, then there is much here to consider. I hope to demonstrate that the ROGD teen’s reluctance to face the realities of their own body is certainly related to their relationship with risk. Furthermore, you, as a parent, can play a vital role in shaping your teen’s ability to bravely face their own reality.
Risk: what it is, what it isn’t
What I mean by “risks” are situations in which there is a possibility of danger or unexpected outcome. For most middle-class families in the modern Western world, these can include the risks of academic failure, social rejection, or emotional disruption, in addition to the possibility of physical harm. Whenever there is difficulty that requires caution, problem solving, skill development, critical thinking, or intuitive responses, that constitutes what I’m calling risk.
- If your teen starts socializing with peers at school, there is a risk that she will get picked on, have rumors spread about her, or be rejected by the group
- When your son first joins the soccer team, and he’s struggling to keep up with other players who are more athletic, there is a risk that he will compare himself and feel inadequate or be mocked for his neophyte status
- If your daughter wants to learn to skateboard at the park, there is a risk she’ll fall and get hurt, that a stranger may talk to her, or that she befriends kids who are getting into some adolescent mischief
- If your high school junior has an upcoming test and you leave them to study as they see fit, there’s a risk they may under-prepare and get a low score
- If your teen has access to the internet, there’s a risk she may see or read something that could lead her down a harmful path
Let’s take a moment to rule out truly dangerous situations, which are different from the type of risk-taking that leads to growth. Repeatedly placing oneself in the path of serious harm may be a pattern in truly traumatized individuals. When facing danger doesn’t lead to growth or maturity, and no learning takes place, a person is unable to build resilience from the challenging experience, and the destructive pattern repeats. For example, some people with a history of childhood trauma find themselves gravitating towards toxic or controlling relationships, over and over again. Others are perpetually struggling with some sort of addiction, though the object of fixation may change over time. In these cases, cravings can feel out of control, and the damage done by trying to quell them becomes a consistent feature in a person’s life and relationships.
Fortunately most young people have not yet developed such damaging patterns. The self-preserving mechanisms which can be disrupted in traumatized adults are still in formation in childhood. When teens put themselves in risky situations, it’s often more a reflection of their curiosity and adolescence than a recapitulation of trauma. But how do we distinguish between healthy risk-taking and a pathological re-exposure to extreme danger? Sometimes it can be difficult to categorize. This is largely due to the fact that people can respond so differently to circumstances our culture deems “harmful”. For example, some kids who are bullied at school are not traumatized by it, and instead, are able to sharpen their social skills, bolster up some assertiveness, or find clever ways to defend themselves and make better friends. To complicate matters, every time a child successfully overcomes a challenge, the needle moves a bit more towards resilience, and events that might previously have shaken her resolve are approached with more confidence and skill. What was previously seen as a dangerous situation, now becomes a small challenge, or even an ordinary transaction. Additionally, our cultural and psychological understanding of harm, risk, and trauma seem to change over time, making any concrete, universal definitions of these terms difficult.
Why do kids need to take risks?
There would be absolutely no learning or transcendence without taking risks. Every competence and ability we have – even our intuition – is developed by confronting some uncertainty and danger. Encountering risk allows us to develop skills, problem-solve, and amass life experience from which to draw upon in similar future situations.
Think of how babies learn to walk. Lead by their natural curiosity, they want to move about and start exploring the world right beyond their immediate reach. Starting with a very wobbly pushup, they learn to crawl, pull themselves up shakily with the help of furniture or people-shins, and eventually begin to stumble about on two feet. There is tremendous risk involved in every step of this universal learning process. Babies fall, bump, cut, bruise, and hurt themselves while learning how to get mobile. There is no self-consciousness or anxious over-thinking to slow down their ambulatory adventure. They just keep getting up and trying again, even if they cry or wail after a fall. The ability to walk cannot develop without the baby voluntarily engaging in some risky movements – not to mention the parent’s willingness to let their baby be at risk of injury. Along with providing secure attachments and assistance, parents must tolerate some risk to ensure the baby’s healthy development.
As a child ages, the same process is true for all physical endeavors, whether as simple as riding a bike or as daring as climbing a mountain. Small, successive experiments with the body are required to develop a skill and learn about the world. Along with imitation, instruction, coaching, and feedback, risks are a necessary component to growth – we know there’s a chance we may fail every time we try something new, but we keep trying.
On a much deeper level, taking risks does far more for us than honing our muscle memory and proprioception. Voluntarily facing greater and greater risk shows us that we have a reliable capacity to succeed, even after a failure, and places our locus of control internally. This means we can trust that even when the outside world is unpredictable, within ourselves we have everything we need to face it, move through it, and eventually, master it. This belief in our own strength and resilience is perhaps the most important power we can possess. Instead, if someone feels acted upon by her circumstances (and unable to affect change), she will not take the risks necessary to face the problem or find solutions. She may come to see herself as a helpless victim. However, developing an internal locus of control as a source of confidence and bravery can move the anxious person towards a more active role in her own life.
When taking a risk results in failure, this provides an opportunity for a transcendent experience only if we embrace our fallibility. In failure, we can keep trying, successively applying the knowledge of our failed attempts to carve out a more perfect strategy. We learn that we can be disappointed, or embarrassed, or unsuccessful, yet still put our energy towards the same problem. What scares us doesn’t have to defeat us in the long run. However, if one failed attempt represents the end of trying, we will never trust our ability to adapt ourselves and overcome obstacles.
Adopting the internal-locus-of-control belief system doesn’t mean that we have an omnipotent power over all circumstances. There are many things we can’t control, no matter how capable we feel ourselves to be. What it means is that we trust our ability face and move through challenges in a way that is life-sustaining and transformative, regardless of the necessary outcome.
Risk, comfort, transcendence in ROGD teens
Perhaps this was inevitable in any industrialized First World society: we are seduced into seeking comfort wherever we can get it. For most of us, technology has turned hard toil and labor into relics of the past, and continues to expand its reach. Even our intellectual work is largely done for us. When our natural curiosity sparks a question, rather than considering it, applying our current knowledge, and making guesses about the answer, we just google it. Even our opinions can be outsourced, then promptly fed right back to us, as algorithms ensure we only be exposed to more of the same ideas. Our emotions are medicated, our preferences catered to, and our egos stroked in every possible way. We can delete texts we don’t like, block people on facebook, and live completely self-contained lives, even in the most metropolitan densely-populated cities. We almost never have to take risks (physical or psychological); and frankly, our taste for risk seems to have been largely extinguished.
But I suspect that deep in our psychic soup, there is an ancient craving for risk, and ultimately, personal transformation. Only by bravely suffering through hardship can we achieve transcendence. Life-changing experiences that indicate the emergence our “truest selves” come in the form of epic trials in which we face horrifying danger and emerge a new person. I wonder if this plays a role in the gender-questioning teen.
In ancient rites of passage rituals all over the world, young teens are ushered into adulthood with ceremonies and methods that may feel barbaric to the Western mind. But through rituals like scarring the skin or being left alone in the wilderness, surely, transcendence occurs. The end of childhood marks the beginning of a new type of existence. Surviving a frightening trial is the first step towards the adult burdens of responsibility and autonomy. It is believed that rituals like these prepare a young person to face the world. I suspect that many gender-questioning teens are craving a similar transformation. Medical transition is often viewed as a heroic journey on which they must embark – they believe the authentic self relies on it. They want to face it bravely, sometimes knowing full-well the pain, bodily injury, and suffering involved. Teens want to emerge on the other side of this experience transformed into a new person. A person better-equipped to face the world, perhaps.
Many dysphoric kids believe they don’t currently have the tools necessary to deal with life as it is. They believe gender transition will imbue them with the confidence they need to truly engage with life. Most of the teens I see (both male and female) have historically experienced a significant amount of anxiety and low levels of assertiveness. Let’s examine the role of bravery and gender in these cases, considering the exponentially soaring numbers of girls presenting with gender dysphoria.
In general, parents are more likely to caution daughters than sons about physical safety and protection, instilling in girls a weariness of others. Many girls have described feeling they were much more overprotected than their brothers. When they perceive freedoms being withheld from them, but simultaneously afforded to their male siblings, it creates annoyance and a feeling of powerlessness. The practical reasons for these sex-biased injunctions are obvious, but if warnings to girls aren’t also paired with encouragement and fortitude, they might arouse excessive anxiety. For example, when parents pull their daughter out of a class or social group because she was being teased, this can send the message that she can’t handle what’s going on and needs to be protected and comforted. By framing ubiquitous adolescent conflict as “bullying,” we might be projecting victimhood onto girls (or boys) who could otherwise learn to assert themselves with time and support (serious bullying, however, requires adult intervention). Could some of thes gender dysphoric girls feel helpless as females? Could they be struggling to bolster their ability face harm in the world? Bravery, after all, isn’t developed by sculpting a perfectly safe world for your daughter, it requires parents to truly prepare her for the inevitable risks of life.
When parents strictly monitored their girls, they are often doing so with good intentions. The logic might be: if she never has to encounter it, she can’t be harmed by it. But does sheltering her actually deprive her of the chance to develop a reliable barometer for what is and isn’t safe? She will need to constantly assess a steady flow of dubious information in her life – both on- and off-line. How can she do that if everything is supposedly too dangerous for her to manage? For example, if a girl is completely ignorant about her body or sexuality, it may seem perfectly reasonable to surgically remove her breasts and have her sexual organs turned into a pseudo-phallus. If certain sexual topics remain unspeakable, even with a 17 year old, then maybe there is reason to feel deeply ashamed of or disgusted by her body?
Some families, who usually experience low-intensity, low-conflict relationships can be thrown into new territory when parents react strongly to a sudden gender-identity announcement. For example, in a household where certain emotions, like anger, are too risky and unwelcome, a teen might come believe that parental frustration or disagreement can’t possibly be seen as “supportive.” She might only have expected their complete unquestioning acceptance. Perhaps a historically well-behaved, obedient teen has never before been angrily confronted, challenged, or told “no”.
Consider the teen girl who is not trans-identified, but gravitating towards a more masculine aesthetic (maybe this was your daughter before she “came out” as trans). Perhaps your little childhood princess is now starting to look like a tomboy and is even suspected of having a crush on her female friend. For most parents I have worked with, this type of gender-bending and sexuality exploration is a non-issue, or even encouraged. But for other parents, concerns arise: what will this mean for my daughter’s ability to fit in, get along with other kids, and to have a “normal life”? If a young person is going to follow her curiosities and sort them out, whichever way they lead, she must be willing to face the risk of being different from her peers – and different from mom and dad’s expectations.
At the heart of both parenting perspectives (encouraging individuality or encouraging conformity), I believe, lies the intention of steering a child towards a better life. The most common desire I hear from parents is, “I just want my child to have confidence”. In that respect, I think we are all on the same page. But there’s a crucial aspect to confidence we must keep in mind. You can praise someone all day, telling them how wonderful they are, but that won’t cut it. Experiencing defeat and rising to the challenge to meet it again is the pathway to real confidence. To gain self-esteem, kids need both: verbal encouragement and praise and parents who believe in their child’s ability to learn from their own mistakes and create meaning out of failures.
This begs the question: how big a mistake should you be willing to let your kids make before it means they are in serious danger?
This is a complex question which parents have been asking themselves forever. Your emotional response to the video above will give you an indication of where you have fallen on this protection-risk spectrum. Every parent will have to answer this question for themselves, but my suggestions in the next section can offer some ideas.
What you can do
Broadly speaking, you must first believe that even if your child sorely lacks the life-skills they need right now, exposing them to challenging situations (not necessarily gender-related), will help them develop those skills. Even if it makes you terribly uncomfortable, you have to nudge them to get uncomfortable too.
Getting outside the “comfort zone” in general
Talking through social challenges
If an unpleasant social experience happens to your kid at school, don’t just tell them to get the teacher or “ignore it.” And don’t just tell them exactly how to handle it. Keep watch of your own desire to step in and intervene as an adult savior. Instead, have a conversation that will help them lead the way to their own solutions. Ask what the experience was like for your child? What would they need to face this situation with bravery next time? Write a pros and cons lists for different possible responses. If they think about someone very brave and confident what would that person do in a similar situation? Help them understand that strong or difficult feelings are not a sign that something is wrong: big emotions are natural part of life. Your teen might find that facing the frightening situation again, after thinking through some options, will boost their self-reliance, which they can carry with them into the next demanding encounter.
If your child is anxious or obsessive, she likely seeks out comfort at all costs. You may not want to throw the anxious child head first into a very demanding activity, but starting small with things like chores and responsibilities can give them a little taste of what it’s like to meet a challenge and survive it.
- Give them chores to do around the house
- Have them be responsible for something important (if you have a family pet, put them in charge of its care and make sure they follow through)
- As a family, learn something that’s difficult and hands-on, then ask them to show you how they did it. Some ideas include changing a tire on the car, building a small item in a workshop studio, or making pottery or paintings in an art class.
- Send them to a class on their own: Gymnastics, horseback riding, sports, dance, etc.
- For a bigger adventures consider wilderness camps, outdoor activities, or camping as a family
- For older teens, international travel or university abroad can be a hugely transformative experience
Getting outside the “comfort zone” with gender
Emphasize that you believe your child about their discomfort, but that you also believe in their ability to sit with the experience. You’ve set boundaries around certain requests regarding social transition, name change, binding, presentation, hormones, surgery – this will vary for each family and depends on the child’s age. Let your teen know that he/she can cope with those limitations while still carrying on with life and being a kid. Even if it’s hard or uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean it is unbearable.
I want to leave you with a thought that was beautifully articulated on the podcast, This Jungian Life, in an episode about motherhood and the complex gamut of human emotions it evokes. Fathers, there’s much in this podcast for you too, as they explore parenting with all its hurdles and all its glory. In contemplating the ways in which children can elicit surprising and dark feelings in a frustrated mom or dad, Deborah Stewart reminds parents that they don’t need to be perfect, but just “good enough”. So in reflecting on Heather Heying’s video, keep this image of the “good enough” parent in mind. To encourage brave and confident kids, start by recognizing that you can’t, and shouldn’t, shield them from every discomfort or harm. Instead, by building their ability to be uncomfortable, you will be truly preparing them for a vital and meaningful adulthood.