A family derailed and humbled by a textbook case of ROGD
“I’m not a girl,” my sweet daughter, Maddie, who had only recently transformed into a salty, sullen, solemn and surly 14-year-old, uttered to me and her father from underneath her covers one day in mid-May as her eighth-grade year drew to a close. Her voice was at once wooden and adversarial. An avid, enthusiastic student, Maddie had always thrived in school. On this morning, though, she was refusing to leave her bed. I urged my husband not to head to the office: we sensed this was a critical moment. We had a feeling we knew what might be brewing.
“I am not a girl,” she said, and though she could not see us from her bed, with her butterfly-adorned quilt fully covering her head, we arranged our faces into neutral expressions and gazed at one another wordlessly. “Don’t try to tell me that this is a phase, or a trend!” she continued. “Because it’s NOT TRUE!!” She clarified gruffly that her cousin - a 12-year-old who identified as non-binary - had warned her that we would surely dismiss her self-declared trans identity as part of a fad or as a temporary state. This cousin had become a lifeline for our daughter during the previous four or five weeks, after two cherished, intense, longstanding school friendships had imploded and sent our formerly well-adjusted and easy-going daughter into an abyss. This cousin, serving as a new best friend and life coach, had been guiding, cheerleading and pushing Maddie along as she “discovered” her nonbinary identity.
Maddie explained to us in a quivery, stilted voice that she “did not want to show her face” at school. That she feared she would not be accepted by her peers, and that she would not be supported by her parents. We said as little as possible. Maddie had been broadcasting messages to us for several weeks about her changing sense of self – wearing androgynous, baggy clothing that I dutifully purchased at her request (flannels, oversized t-shirts, and jeans far too large for her petite frame), distancing herself from us with her withdrawn mood, and hinting to us that she was going through “something she was not ready to discuss” with us yet. Nevertheless, we were blindsided and dumbstruck in that moment by the extent of our daughter’s distress and by her newfound assertiveness.
My husband and I are progressive Democrats. We might have described ourselves as “woke” unironically before the term was co-opted by the Republican party. We each sought careers working on behalf of underserved, indigent, vulnerable individuals and populations. We have gay siblings and cousins and friends in our close, daily orbit. Indeed, Maddie’s older sister had come out to us as bisexual earlier in the school year and was in a sweet, intense, healthy, fulfilling relationship with a young woman. Her revelation to us about her identity was joyful and, to an extent, anticlimactic: we told her we were very happy for her as we embraced her, and that we looked forward to meeting her girlfriend. We were aware that a growing number of girls in our social circles were questioning their gender identities or “transitioning” somehow and also knew that our understanding of what was happening for these girls was superficial. We only vaguely comprehended what a luxury it was to have such a shallow understanding of these issues. One thing was certain. Based on our political leanings, and based on our observations of friends, as well as the clear messages that outspoken experts, journalists, advocates, leaders, social media and the pediatric medical community were sending: there was only one acceptable way forward. Affirm. Do not question, do not agonize. Do not dig deeper. Embrace and support the new identity. “Let your child lead,” the first two psychologists we saw admonished us. “Your job is to follow.”
We were deeply uncomfortable with this approach, but we were not certain there was another viable option. While Maddie had not displayed overt suicidality, parental fear can render clear-headed, thoughtful analysis nearly impossible. We did not know much about the Gender Critical perspective, or that anyone other than a right-wing bigot would ever question whether a naïve, inexperienced 14-year-old ought to be “taking the lead” regarding anything weightier than what is for dinner. We did not know much, but we are a close, loving family that had just survived nearly a year and a half of remote schooling for two students and (we naively believed) emerged intact. We did not know much, but we knew that Maddie was a formerly well-adjusted kid with no history of distress, or even a whiff of gender nonconformity, who had rapidly morphed into a withdrawn, belligerent, depressive person, whose distress was palpable, who was grieving the sudden loss of her relationships with her two best friends and was uncomfortable talking about these losses with us. We did not know much, but we knew that she might be discovering that she was same-sex attracted, that she DEEPLY loathed her developing chest, and that she had spent an excessive amount of time in her bedroom on her devices. While we did not permit her to access TikTok, Snapchat, or Instagram, we came to understand that the content on trans activist web sites and in You Tube videos circulated by trans influencers was powerful and compelling. Maddie spoke in scripted, trans-activist talking points. She repeated arguments and explanations verbatim from videos and web sites that she could not explain in her own words when we gently questioned her, to understand her thinking. She floundered and became defensive, combative, furious when we prompted her to go “off script.” She sounded unrecognizable. She seemed miserable, though she expressed earnestly and repeatedly that she felt certain that a trans identity would be a sure pathway to “euphoria.”
We were apoplectic and deeply fearful about her mental health and her future. We catastrophized like world champion catastrophizers. Our gut instinct and our powers of observation and analysis told us that the trans identity was neither the cause of, nor the solution to her distress. We believed that she had latched onto gender dysphoria as a self-diagnosis that promised her a simple path out of hurting in a desperate, vulnerable time. We spent our days walking gingerly on a thousand egg shells. We found a therapist who assured us that Maddie’s new short haircut and her new androgynous wardrobe were temporary and reversible, and that we should not try to limit Maddie’s self-expression decisions. While the counselor was a gender “expert,” she claimed she was committed to exploring all of the forces propelling Maddie into her depressed, withdrawn state. We did not yet know the term “gender-affirming care” and were not aware of how difficult it is to find a therapist willing to pursue a thoughtful exploration of the whole self, rather than relying upon blind affirmation as a primary strategy. We prayed that the therapist would not push Maddie toward cementing a nonbinary identity or a “trans masculine” identity (which Maddie noted was something she found intriguing). We took solace in the fact that Maddie was willing to speak to this therapist about the social turmoil she had experienced and other traumas that we believed were converging on her simultaneously: her older sister’s impending departure to college several states away, and the end of a nine-year, bliss-filled era at a small, warm and fuzzy K-8 school to be followed in the fall by the launch of high school in a 3,000-student, intense, academically rigorous environment. Maddie, who had wept prolifically nine years earlier after preschool graduation, asserting that she was not ready to begin kindergarten, was in no hurry to grow up. The year and a half of pandemic remote-schooling from her bedroom had not done her any favors on this front.
In the months that followed, over the summer following the eighth grade, Maddie doubled down on her new identity. She asked for pronoun pins and a trans flag. She created and delivered a Power Point presentation on trans identities to us. She had spent weeks crafting and fine-tuning these slides, which contained the usual “facts” and talking points, widely available on every trans-activist organization’s web site. She begged me repeatedly for a chest binder, insisting that we could not possibly understand the “lived experience” of a person with gender dysphoria, and that her exhaustive research attested to the safety of chest binding. She argued that we ought to be grateful she was not (yet) demanding a “permanent solution” (a double mastectomy). She cited a book that her sister had shared with her about a trans-identified boy in Oklahoma whose mother wholeheartedly supported a social and medical transition, thereby solving all of the formerly despondent teen’s problems. It was clear that this parenting approach was the only acceptable one. She seemed intoxicated by the idea that there could be a prescribed pathway out of her profound anxiety and sadness but lacked the intellectual chops or the wisdom of life experience to think critically and analytically about the implications of gender ideology or medically altering a formerly healthy body. She was at the peak of the enchanting developmental stage during which young teens become convinced that they know more than their parents ever could.
I educated myself about gender like it was my job. I became a person who agonized obsessively about my daughter and what was happening to vulnerable teens in the wider culture. I devoured every podcast, article, book, web site, and video that I could find. I spoke to friends and contacts I could trust not to judge me, and carefully distanced myself from those who responded to Maddie’s initial announcement with well-meaning but misguided comments like, “How brave of her to share this truth about herself! You must be so proud.” I learned about Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD). I discovered the Gender: A Wider Lens podcast. My husband learned along with me. We wallowed in fear and agony and felt disconnected from our daughter. We went through the motions of our days in a state of near-constant alarm. Our mental health and quality of life were dangerously compromised. Our ability to compartmentalize was obliterated. I bent myself into a pretzel each time I spoke in order to avoid using any pronouns so that my child did not have ammunition to label me a transphobe.
After months of immersion, my husband and I developed a well-informed, evidence-based world view and set out to align our day-to-day parenting approach with this perspective. We determined that we were not comfortable with any intervention involving risk to the body, and we gently but firmly said no to chest binding. We stated our reason repeatedly: Our job as her parents is to keep her safe and healthy. We did not feel comfortable with any kind of body modification that might endanger her safety or health. That might be permanent, and regrettable. Maddie cried. We calmly expressed our skepticism about hormones and surgery as a way out of distress for children and teens. We cited the lack of empirical evidence supporting the notion that transitioning medically leads to improved mental health outcomes. We learned quickly that our daughter would not be swayed by these logical, science-based approaches. This would not be the way forward.
Late in the summer, she indignantly accused us of disrespecting her by not using they/them pronouns frequently enough (I had initially tried to use these pronouns once a day to appease her as well as her sister, who was fully supportive of the trans identity – so edgy, so exciting, so progressive!). Then Maddie ventured to request the occasional use of he/him pronouns. We found ourselves engaged in what will be forever etched into our memories as The Great Pronoun Battle of the Summer of 2022. During this agonizing battle, we pushed back on her fragility surrounding pronouns and the dogma of gender ideology itself, deploying our professional skills when we could (mine: public health and data, my husband’s: gentle but piercing cross-examination focusing on logical inconsistencies and her questionable credibility as a narrator). My husband astutely pointed out to Maddie that as someone who had never been in a romantic relationship with another human, or experienced physical intimacy of any kind, she was not well-positioned to be making decisions that might lead to bodily harm, irreversible sexual dysfunction, or a lifelong attachment to the medical system. It continued for hours. It felt like an out-of-body experience. It was our first real argument with her, ever. She seemed captured, cult member-like. At 1am, depleted and wan, we gave up for the night.
The following day, Maddie composed a letter and presented it to us. She told us in this letter that she would work with her therapist to explore why she felt so wounded and offended about the pronouns we used. She told us that she could see that we were struggling and hurting as a result of her demands, and that in the interest of preserving peace in our family, she was releasing us from her pronoun requirements. She promised that she would not be upset with us for using she/her pronouns.
We asked her if we were coercing or bullying her into this position. We told her that if she had a change of heart moving forward, we would be happy to reopen the discussion. We wondered if any of our arguments and assertions about focusing on changing her gender identity as a misguided “solution” had resonated with her at all. She told her cousin shortly after this exchange, allegedly – the cousin who was her trans coach and cheerleader – that “we had driven her back into the closet.” We desperately hoped that this was not true, and that pushing back on her pronouns would not backfire.
We plowed forward, relying on a One Day At A Time approach as Maddie entered ninth grade. We continued to seek information and guidance from trusted gender critical professionals, experts and parents. We avoided discussion with either daughter about gender ideology or identity, mostly but not always successfully. Most of all, we leaned hard into parenting Maddie with intention and care: We love-bombed her. We dedicated ourselves to a joint campaign of being consistently and unrelentingly affectionate and supportive in all possible ways. We set out to show her that we were on her team, even if we were not prepared to affirm a suddenly declared trans identity that did not ring true to us. She had confronted us over the summer about her fear that we would “kick her out of the house” because of her trans identity (influencers and activists had planted this seed in her mind, clearly) and we needed her to understand with every cell in her body that we would NEVER stop loving her and caring for her. We showered her with attention when she was receptive, and backed off and let her grow, develop and mature when she needed time and space. We said yes to things she wanted any time we could. We encouraged her to seek challenges at school (taking on tough writing assignments on her school newspaper, applying for Board positions in school clubs, trying out for the tennis team). She started learning how to drive, which allowed regular dad/daughter time and boosted Maddie’s sense of self-efficacy. When she asked me to rub her feet while we watched a movie together, I said yes. When she asked me to rub her back at bedtime as she drifted off to sleep, I said yes. When she needed us to drive her across town to socialize as she developed new friendships, we said yes. When she became enamored with a new band (a favorite among young LGB adults), we rushed to purchase tickets for a concert in a neighboring state.
Over the year, Maddie blossomed (or reverted?) into an inquisitive, engaged, agreeable, more confident young person. She nurtured old friendships and tentatively cultivated new ones. She excelled academically, joined multiple clubs, painted as a self-care strategy, and devoted her time and energy to writing stories for her school’s award-winning news magazine. As a member of the news magazine staff, Maddie found a “family,” a niche within her large public high school with a culture that emphasized industriousness, passion, wry humor, and achievement – in other words, not identity. Every time a magazine issue was published, and Maddie’s byline showed her name, we felt reassured. We were relieved that she was not using a different name at school, of course (knowing that this kind of deception is common, and about her claim to her cousin about us “driving her back into the closet”). She was finding her confidence, focusing on this aspect of herself – a budding journalist, rather than a budding trans-activist.
My husband and I continued our love-bombing crusade at home as we observed other changes that would have been otherwise unremarkable, but felt significant and worthy of dissection and analysis during our nightly walks with the family dog. She changed her musical taste and habits radically: after spending many months listening exclusively and obsessively to a trans-identified male British musician who sang primarily about loneliness, anxiety and depression on her headphones, Maddie broadened her taste to include many talented Indie artists, and opted frequently to enjoy music communally and share the experience with us. She cultivated a more diverse approach to self-expression: she chose to wear skirts and dresses sometimes, started to gravitate toward clothing that highlighted and clung to her body rather than hiding it, had her ears re-pierced, grew her shorn hair to her shoulders, and became interested in wearing makeup occasionally. We are not the sort of parents who need or expect our daughters to dress in a gender-conforming way but these changes (we hoped) signaled a less rigid and despairing sense about her body. Her self-esteem and comfort within that changing, growing female body, decimated at the end of 8th grade, slowly seemed to be returning. She was named Writer of the Year by her publication at the end of the school year. She was bursting with joy and pride.
Maddie entered tenth grade the following fall with a sense of humor, a self-awareness and willingness to articulate her feelings of anxiety (the intimidation of enrolling in several AP courses; the angst caused by the transfer of her former friend, whose rejection had fueled her plummet into despair, into her school), and a positive outlook. She has not explicitly mentioned gender identity in ten months. We are hopeful that these changes signal a desistance, but there has been no official renunciation. We are still plagued by residual worry, lack of bandwidth to cope with normal, everyday stressors that middle-aged parents face in 2023, and lingering PTSD. We reassure each other and ourselves, and struggle to feel more gratitude and less panic about what happened to our daughter and what is happening to so many young women. We do not know if she is safely out of the woods, or if she is simply in a clearing surrounded by the woods.
Factors that I believe have helped us most as we have navigated through our daughter’s ROGD:
Refraining from poking the bear. We stopped talking about gender entirely. We talked about everything else. This required almost superhuman restraint.
Educating ourselves obsessively. We sought information from trusted, credible sources (Gender: A Wider Lens podcast, Genspect, books, essays, journal articles, on line parent support boards, detransitioner stories and countless other sources) until we felt certain and solid about our world view. We also learned a tremendous amount through observing Sasha Ayad’s Inspired Teen Therapy Parent Q & A sessions and from having an invaluable one-time parent coaching session with Sasha Ayad.
Abandoning the pursuit of therapy to help me regain my mental health stability and quality of life. All of the therapists I met or spoke with were either trained in blind affirmation and uninterested in, or unaware of an alternative approach, or they were totally inexperienced but open to learning. I ultimately chose not to continue to spend my time and funds to educate therapists. After several months of trying unsuccessfully to find a knowledgeable therapist who could provide me with the moral support I craved, I found a fellow mother who happens to be a brilliant, insightful therapist and a generous friend, who has a daughter caught up in this movement. Who understands both viscerally and intellectually what being an ROGD parent feels like. The benefits of commiseration, information sharing, and mutual moral support from this relationship feel far more potent than the support I was seeking from a client-therapist relationship.
Remaining clear about our priorities. We are alarmed about what is happening in gender medicine in the wider culture, and have come to believe that “gender affirming care” will be seen through the lens of history as a massive medical scandal and a complete failure of our institutions to care properly for children, teens, young adults, and their families. But our primary job now is to care for our daughter, and to nurture and support her. Her mental health, physical health, and sense of confidence and well-being are our priority. We feel outrage about so many things but understand that we must remain laser-focused on our daughter’s health.
We set out to build what we hoped might be a gentle bridge for Maddie to use to return to being grounded in reality. We learned to stay away from confrontation, power struggles, and scientific or intellectual battles. We showered her with consistent support and affection. We hoped that Maddie would find the path, strength, and motivation to back away from the belief system that had captivated her so fiercely, without losing face. We understand how fortunate we are that she was just 14 when this crisis occurred, an age when there was absolutely no question that she would need to defer to her parents regarding decisions for her body. We are equally fortunate that Maddie’s gender crisis occurred in 2022, when information that parents like us needed was widely available (for those looking for it), and not several years earlier, when thoughtful gender critical discourse was far less widespread.
We are still raw and shell-shocked. We wonder each day if the gender dysphoria and trans identity are a ticking time bomb that will emerge again in a time of distress in the years ahead. We hope that, someday, we can allow ourselves to exhale.