Christine MacInnis, LMFT
How to Handle Social Distancing with Your Gender Expansive Teen
We are in a new place in our world right now. Being apart from the rest of society is causing great distress to everyone but it is putting a particular strain on our #gender expansive teens. All teenagers are social beings who crave intimacy and affirmation from their peers and gender expansive teens are no exception. But #transgender, #genderqueer and #non-binary teens also rely on their friend groups, affiliations like GSA clubs, particular staff and teachers and even the nice kid who sits next to them in Algebra who always remembers to use they/them pronouns when addressing them, to provide extra affirmation and assurance that they are doing ok. This lack of connection can’t always be replaced by a screen and they may not even be in contact at all with certain people who provide this support. In addition, the increased screen time may be highlighting their #dysphoria greatly. Zoom classes, meetings online with friends and the like are causing them to constantly have to view themselves and for some that can difficult. And finally, the transition process has been abruptly halted by a lack of doctor visits for hormone treatments, surgeries that are being postponed and name changes on legal documents being put on hold. So, there are lots of additional considerations when dealing with a teen who questioning their gender or going through transition right now.
As parents and caregivers, what can you do to support them?
First of all, take this time to get your own education and support. Online meetings, Facebook support groups, webinars on supporting your trans teen, and books written by professionals are a great start to further your knowledge on the gender exploration journey. Also make sure to find outlets for your fears, worries and frustrations. It’s easy to snap at our teens when we are at our wit’s end with Covid-19. Zoom happy hour with friends, exercise, even a long walks can feed our souls so we can then be there to support them. Explore your own gender Identity as well. If you haven’t taken the time to do this process yourself, I highly recommend it. It teaches you more about yourself, allows your to question societal gender norms you feel and also teaches you more about the journey your child has embarked upon. Lastly, be extra compassionate and kind to yourself right now. If this news that your child is questioning their gender identity is new to you, there is a lot to learn and absorb. It’s not an overnight process. So be patient with yourself as well.
Once you are all set and feel like you are in a good head space, now is the opportunity to help your child. Do ask your child what they do find affirming so you can join them in that activity. Maybe it’s browsing online at a new wardrobe or practicing makeup tips. Let them show you what makes them happy.
Evaluate the language you are using as a family. Are you insuring it is free from gender slurs or assumptions? Are you using body shaming language like saying you are fat or losing your “girlish” figure? Check it if that is occurring from any family member in the household and hold everyone accountable to new language that is supportive.
Recommend to your teen that they find another friend online who is also going through a gender journey of their own if they haven’t done so already. That support buddy can be so valuable right now.
Recognize that your teen may be hesitant to ask you to practice different names or use the correct pronouns because they feel guilt that their gender journey shouldn’t be as valid during a pandemic. You can encourage that discussion for them and gently ask if they would like to practice with you.
And on the opposite side of the coin, give them lots of space! Space to do their own gender exploration, to individuate from the family so they can find their own maturity, and even just space to be alone with their thoughts and feelings. Their closed door is not an affront against you, I promise!
The only caveat right now is avoid using gender in any way to punish or reframe negative behaviors your teen may exhibit. Examples are taking away gender affirming clothing or not using their correct pronouns. Our teens will cause us to get frustrated and angry but using their gender as a weapon against them is life altering and will damage your relationship with them in ways that are difficult to be repaired. Rely on the phone and other tried and true methods for this one during this time!
There are many ways to be a supportive parent right now through this difficult time. Get creative and have fun with it! And who knows? This crisis may actually be a hidden blessing as a time to grow in this journey together as a family.