The Era of No Boundaries: A New Threat to Teens
I am the parent of a 9th grade girl – er, adolescent. My child no longer accepts the word daughter, just as she no longer accepts she/her pronouns. Her name, chosen thoughtfully by me and her father after much consideration, is dead to her. She cannot wait to turn 16 so she can change it legally to her new chosen name.
In truth, I don’t actually hate this new name, and I do abide by it in the presence of my child. I navigate these requests carefully, and have learned the linguistic gymnastics of almost entirely avoiding the “they” pronouns that she desires. With my husband, we use the given name when our child is not in earshot. Meanwhile, I refuse to censor my own mind, where my daughter lives as “she” still and forever despite what performative “theys” I must use when unavoidable. I miss the name we chose, just as I miss the daughter we had, before she became obsessed with changing the unchangeable. I wonder: Has anyone thought to study the effect of these sudden shifts on parents’ mental health?
I do not write to rail against transgender activists or to denounce the cult of gender ideology. In fact, until recently, I would have positioned myself politically within these groups. I strongly believe in an individual’s right to live according to his, her, or their beliefs, so long as they do not cause damage to others. These progressive politics have always been part of my thinking. I’m an academic, I teach trans students, and I have friends and colleagues of all sexual persuasions and gender identities.
What I’m finding, however, is that it is an entirely different thing to welcome this thinking into my home, and into my adolescent’s brain. Particularly as this particular brain is saddled with ADHD, anxiety, depression and even, perhaps, autism. An adolescent who throws a fit about doing basic household tasks, who refuses to do homework, and who changes course weekly about passions and pursuits. This is not a critique of adolescents. Teens are supposed to be like this. They can’t help it—it’s an inherent trait of that stage of life. As parents, we are supposed to hold this space as our children explore, experiment, and push back against our rules.
Previous generations of teens grew their hair long—or dyed it; dressed wildly—or provocatively. All of these manifestations of identity are part of a teenager’s search of being and belonging. Historically, they have caused parents to worry, to lose sleep, and even to grieve. Today, however, we seem to have crossed into a new frontier. Kids talk openly about taking, or wishing to take, hormones; they dream of getting surgeries to change themselves in irreversible ways: deepening voices that cannot be returned to former and familiar tones, adding body hair that will forever be managed, removing functioning body parts.
This generation of parents is known for not setting clear boundaries. We’ve been accused of wanting to be our kids’ friends instead of their parents. Is this trans trend part a result of the slippery slope that has led us here? Or was it the search for equity and the embracing of diversity that brought us to this place? I don’t know, and neither does our society.
Here’s what I do know: My kid does have dysphoria. She hates her body. My kid is gender non-conforming. She doesn’t fit gender stereotypes, and never has. My kid may even decide to transition. And that is a road we will all cross when our kids are old enough and mature enough to make the decisions. Until then, however, we just don’t know enough—about the science, about the effects of medical interventions long term, about desistance. And of course, my child does not know herself well enough to make such a big decision. What I also know is this: I am scared, scared in a way that keeps me up at night, that keeps me obsessively seeking new research, that has activated an anxiety like I have never experienced.
My child has been empowered by friends, schools, teachers, counselors, neighbors, therapists, and doctors. All of whom, I believe, are acting out of, what they believe to be, good conscience, thinking they are being supporting, affirming, and progressive. And also, none of whom know my kid well enough to make an informed decision about how she will feel in 5, 10, 15 years when, in all likelihood, they will no longer be in their lives. When this kid tires of weekly hormone shots. When she cannot nurse her baby. When she realizes she has lost out on sexual pleasure. Where will these friends, schools, teachers, counselors, neighbors, therapists, and doctors be? I strongly doubt they will be here.
But I will be here. Always.