Coming to Terms with Alienation
The PITT Estrangement Survey
[Donald Sutherland as Matthew] "Listen, we're not the last humans left. There are people who will fight you. They will find out what you're doing here."
[Brooke Adams as Elizabeth] "They'll stop you."
[Leonard Nimoy as David] "In an hour, you won't want them to. In an hour, you'll be one of us."
In this scene from the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, two colleagues from the San Francisco Public Health Department valiantly confront David, a psychiatrist they thought they knew but whose body has been subsumed and duplicated by an alien invader. The shock as the last survivors gradually realize what’s happened, that there’s no one to turn to and no way to escape, evokes the dystopian, bewildering world in which some parents find themselves when their child suddenly announces a trans identity. “I’m just trying to help!” says the psychiatrist, while garbage trucks roam the streets of San Francisco, disposing of the human husks that have been left behind.
When parents have a tween, teen, or young adult abruptly come out as trans and begin to look into what that means, a divide in responses develops. Many parents want to believe the gender therapists, the doctors, the surgeons, and the American pharmaceutical industry with its global tentacles. It’s easy and aligns with the stories they’ve seen in the mainstream media. We are here to help…your child was born in the wrong body…they will die if we don’t drug and sterilize them…you are heroic for embracing this. These parents find answers in their gender clinics and Facebook pods, in happy media stories, and in school presentations. This is how my child will survive. This is the only way they’ll be happy. I am a brave and good parent.
But some parents feel like they’ve entered an upside-down universe as they look more closely at the research. “What do you mean do I want a live daughter or a dead son when I can see that my child is more likely to commit suicide after medical transition?” “What do you mean I should embrace this when I can see that medicalization is not reducing high trans mortality rates?” “If your drugs and surgeries help, why is that not showing up in your results?” They read the low-quality American studies, and they read the post-transition statistics showing how many of these kids will go on to struggle psychologically and financially. They do not see the happy future that the pod parents see.
Bigots! Transphobes! Fix your hearts! Be happy your child is special!
Meanwhile, swirling on the servers and subreddits that adolescents and young adults immerse themselves in, Your parents hate you if they don’t affirm you…they want you to die…we’re all the family you need.
With no support, no one to trust, and no way to open their children’s eyes to the dangers in front of them, it’s no wonder that parents may feel like they’re hanging on to their sanity by the thinnest of threads.
And then, one day, their call goes to voicemail. Their texts are blocked. All communication, all contact is cut. Their child is gone.
What happens next?
It’s complicated. Thank you to the anonymous parents, family members, and therapists who participated in PITT’s survey to help unpack some of the complexities of estrangement. The results are linked on this page, but we’ll discuss some key takeaways below.
And parents, please know: This is real life, and you are battling alienation, not aliens; you are struggling to make fellow humans understand. You are fighting professional hubris, bias, propaganda, ignorance, and apathy. You are not the last ones left. There are more who join this fight every day.
Note: The overwhelming number of respondents to our survey were parents of adults, so you’ll see that relationship addressed specifically in the takeaways below. We recognize that parents who’ve lost custody of minor children, step-parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members are also devastated by estrangement, and we appreciate the advice and insights you’ve shared. Your data is included in the accompanying pdf, and we hope this discussion is informative for you, too.
Key Takeaway 1: A (Very) Rough Estimate of Estrangement
To step into many transgender social media groups on Reddit, Discord, and elsewhere is to step into a disturbing quicksand of distress, misinformation, and casual contempt of parents. Given how we see this play out in the real world, an important takeaway from the results of our PITT surveys is that despite the negativity, estrangement within our community is still relatively rare. It is something for all sex-realist parents to be aware of and guard against, given how pervasive it is in trans discourse, but it’s not an inevitable outcome if you and your child are in disagreement. Based on the 149 responses to this survey and the over 1,000 responses and counting to our ongoing second survey, our estimate is that about 10% of sex-realist family members may end up estranged from a trans-identified adult child to some degree. However, we recognize that there are limitations to the reach of the PITT surveys, and global estrangement numbers between parents and trans-identified children may be higher or lower.
If you are reading this as a parent worried about possible future estrangement, an excellent book with practical advice on ways to stay connected is Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers by Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufeld. See the Estrangement Resources below for further suggestions.
Key Takeaway 2: Many Adult Children Stay in Touch With at Least One Family Member
One of the more common themes you’ll note in the survey data is that while an adult child may cut off some family members, they will often remain in contact with others. If you’re hoping to reconnect, this may work for or against you. Be cautious about pulling family members into the estrangement dynamic. They cannot fix your broken relationship; that is ultimately between you and your child. It may be worth family counseling with a sensitive therapist to ensure estrangement doesn’t rupture ties with those you’re still close to.
If you are estranged from multiple family members, recognize that if you are seeking to reconnect specifically with one adult child, you may need to work on repairing your relationship with the rest of your family to move forward. It is not helpful to have a family split into factions.
Key Takeaway 3: Sometimes Estrangement Is the Best Option
Survey after survey (including ours) shows that those who are trans-identified commonly have co-morbid mental illnesses, trauma and/or neurological differences. For sex-realist parents, this fact is the chicken that comes first: their child had these traits or experiences before transition, and the transition is a maladaptive coping mechanism to mental distress. For gender-affirming parents, it’s the egg that comes first: their child had these traits or experiences before transition, but they believe it’s because their kids are inherently transgender: the symptoms are maladaptive coping mechanisms to minority stress.
Whichever way you look at it, sometimes mentally ill adult children are extremely abusive to their families and have such a negative impact that it’s the parents or other family members who need to cut off contact. If it’s the child who initiated the estrangement, the rest of the family may choose not to reconnect. Parents may feel great relief tinged with guilt in these circumstances; while it may be the best option, it’s never an easy decision.
Key Takeaway 4: Parents Need Time and Tools to Manage the Impacts of Estrangement
It can get better. What you will see in the pie chart on page 6 of the pdf is that about 80% of family members who responded are distressed or highly distressed about the estrangement. It’s important first to note that family members who are not distressed about an estrangement would be less likely to fill out our survey, so these numbers will naturally skew to the right. However, what we can see in the raw data is that those who are not distressed or only somewhat distressed tended to be those who’ve been estranged longer. In his book Rules of Estrangement, psychologist Joshua Coleman wrote, “the path out of hell is through misery,” meaning that if parents can radically accept where they are right now, can radically accept their pain, they may paradoxically eventually be able to move past their suffering. Take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time. Respondents shared some of the tools that may help in this survey, and we’ll pull these out for you to look through below. Whether you choose to try to reconnect with your child or not, whether they choose to reconnect with you or not, your life has value and purpose. There is hope for a brighter future.
The Parent Estrangement Survey Results file is downloadable here.
The resources listed here were shared by parents of all beliefs, experiences, and backgrounds. PITT makes no endorsements. Please explore what you think might be helpful to you and disregard the rest. Resources were not included when PITT could not determine an author or creator. Genspect.org has an extensive repository of more general resources as well, so don’t forget to browse those.
The Rules of Estrangement by Joshua Coleman
Be Your Own Hero by Lesley Van Staveren
How to Get Your Son Back by Kevin Fall
Done With the Crying by Sheri McGregor
Hold Onto Your Kids by Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufeld
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero
BPD for Dummies by Charles Elliott and Laura Smith
Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger
Boundaries by Cloud Townsend
People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck
Motherhood: Facing and Find Yourself by Lisa Marchiano
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier
12 Rule for Life by Jordan Peterson
Material Girls by Kathleen Stock
Trans by Helen Joyce
Divorce Poison by Richard Warshak
Listen or Watch
The Estranged Heart (podcast)
On Being with Krista Tippett (podcast)
Better Than Happy (podcast)
The Witness (podcast)
The Reconnection Club (podcast)
The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast (podcast and YouTube)
Calmversations with Benjamin Boyce: anything with Alasdair Gunn (aka Angus Fox) (podcast and YouTube)
Ryan Thomas Speaks (YouTube)
International: Gender Dysphoria Support Network (GDSN)
Regional (may serve multiple regions): Parents of ROGD Kids, Bayswater Support Group, Our Duty Group
Dr. Joshua Coleman
Barbra Drizen (coaching)
Therapist Directory: Gender Exploratory Therapist Association
Types/Modalities: Talk, EMDR, Ketamin Assisted Psychotherapy
Strengthen Connections with Friends/Family
Try New Hobbies
Try Activism/Avoid Activism
Create New Networks on Social Media/Disconnect from Social Media
Connect with Grief Resources