Managing Conflict between Parents and Adolescents regarding Gender Identity
If you are a parent or adolescent with conflict or disagreement about how to approach the topic of gender identity, you are not alone. While each generation of parenting brings different challenges, conflict between parents and children regarding gender identity is particularly difficult due to the potential emotional impact, the intersection with identity formation, and the stress-inducing media that arises amid the current, political tension surrounding the topic. That is why it is particularly important to work toward remaining grounded and tethered to your wisdom when approaching these conversations and making decisions.
As a family therapist, I do not intend to provide step-by-step advice to “solve” your adolescent’s gender identity difficulties. Although, I absolutely recommend staying up to date with the latest research on gender identity and mental health recommendations, my aim is to provide researched and proven strategies to set you up to be able to effectively collaborate with your adolescent to generate solutions. Effective solutions cannot be generated if the emotional tension is too heightened and communication tactics are ineffective. Therefore, I review three tips for productive conversations between parents and adolescents, with an emphasis on applying these techniques to gender identity specifically.
Understand before Problem-Solving
When an adolescent first articulates a desire to make a change that intersects with gender identity (e.g., a male-identified adolescent wants to wear stereotypically female clothing), parents often experience an urge to problem-solve immediately. Whether suggesting that the adolescent should not wear the clothing to school or proposing that the student should alert his teacher when wearing that clothing, immediate problem-solving often leads to the adolescent shutting down or the intensity of the polarization between a teen and their parent escalating. Instead, as a parent, make understanding your first goal, prior to providing any solutions.
To do this, slow down the conversation and ask questions about your adolescent’s experience. Remain nonjudgmental when asking questions with a stance of curiosity. If your adolescent detects judgment, they may refrain from opening up about the topic altogether, which will prevent further collaborative problem-solving. If you notice intense emotions arising for you as a parent, remind yourself that, although the topic is difficult, this is not a crisis. Thus, patiently working to understand your adolescent (and this does take tremendous patience for adolescents who have difficulty communicating their emotions and experiences) will provide you with a foundation whereby the adolescent will be much more likely to collaborate with you and listen to your problem-solving strategies.
In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), we practice dialectics, the philosophy that two seemingly conflicting things can both be true, or a part of reality. Dialectics is quite useful for difficult conversations about gender identity. For example, it could both be true that your child could experience an increased risk of being bullied when changing their pronouns, and they could also experience increased social isolation if they did not change their pronouns. Likewise, it may be true that your son could experience more hardship when wearing stereotypically feminine clothing, and your son could also experience greater authenticity and autonomy when wearing stereotypically feminine clothing. As a parent, if you validate the parts of reality that your adolescent is articulating (without validating unrealistic statements), your adolescent may be more likely to also hear the part of reality that you are emphasizing.
When working on understanding an adolescent and applying dialectics, parents often worry that they are neglecting their role as parents. Parents also point out the illogical choices that their children make. This is understandable. The reality is that parents have power over their children, and children will make choices that are less logical as their brains are not fully developed. Playing the role of a parent is important. Nevertheless, when parents understand their adolescent and practice dialectics, far from giving up their power, parents model effective behaviors for their adolescents by remaining grounded, balanced, and not rushing into decision-making.
Maintain a Growing Mindset, with Openness to Learning
Knowledge of gender identity for teens is continuing to evolve over time. Experts on gender identity, while equipped to help adolescents who fall along the gender spectrum, will not claim that there are one-size-fits-all answers for every teen. Knowing this can paradoxically help parents to decrease defensiveness about the topic of gender identity, and be open to what social scientists are learning over time. With the way media is generated online with snippets of headlines and emotionally-laden diatribes, it is quite difficult to stay level-headed while navigating the topic of gender identity online. Therefore, stay away from frequently surfing the internet to figure out how to manage discussions about gender identity with your adolescent. Instead, write down your questions and set up meetings with a variety of individuals who have expertise or experience with gender identity.
To take a balanced approach, you may want to meet with a range of individuals–a person who socially transitioned in adolescence, a person with gender dysphoria who did not socially transition in adolescence, a gender identity expert who supports medical interventions for adolescents, and an accepting gender identity expert who does not support medical interventions for adolescents. Although the Internet is useful for setting up these meetings (online accessibility is incredibly helpful), prepare to have these dialogues face-to-face, so you can take in the information in a balanced way. Meeting people who have actually been through this stage before can make a tremendous difference by providing further clarity, and by providing hope that both parent and adolescent can have a satisfying future and relationship.
About the Author
Samuel Eshleman Latimer (he/his), Psy.D., is a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow that specializes in effective conflict management and dialectical behavior therapy. Samuel also works to help individuals, couples, and families decrease interpersonal difficulties and manage challenges associated with borderline personality disorder. Samuel believes that people do not need to choose between learning effective techniques that are based on science and developing warm, genuine relationships, as both of these styles complement each other. Click Here to learn more about Samuel’s experience and therapeutic style.