I recently celebrated the youngest of my seven children reaching adulthood.
Helping my kids get to adulthood in good mental and physical health had been my #1 goal.
There have been many ups and downs in my 31 years of parenting, and many lessons learned.
One of the most difficult and arguably most important realizations was that teenage brains are complex and evolving. Sometimes hormonal changes make their brains short-circuit. Sometimes teenagers behave in irrational ways. It does not mean they are “bad” kids; it means they are going through a challenging phase.
It has always been difficult to be a teenager, but it is a heck of a lot harder in the days of TikTok and Instagram than in the era in which hours riding our bicycles and playing sports far outpaced our screen time.
When gender-identity issues are added to the standard challenges of teenage life, insecurity and self-esteem shortfalls are typically exacerbated.
Many studies have shown that children with gender-identity challenges tend to suffer more from depression and attempt suicide at dramatically higher levels (e.g.,Transgender Adolescent Suicide Behavior).
As one friend pointed out last week, the risks of depression and suicide likely get much worse when someone does not get support or, especially, has their viewpoints diminished, rejected, or ridiculed by family and/or friends.
We do not want our children to be confused about their identity. We want them to feel good about themselves, wherever they happen to be on the physical and self-identification spectrums.
We also want them to know that whatever they feel about themselves today could be very different from how they feel in the future.
The best advice I have received came from the director of my oldest son’s theatre group when he was 17 and skipping school.
“I have seen it so many times,” he said. “They struggle to fit in and understand why other people act the way they do.
“The best thing to do is just tell them that we love them and that we will be there for them – no matter what! By the time they turn 18, 19, or 20, they usually figure things out.”
That script certainly played out with my kids.
In my opinion – and, no, I am not a psychologist nor a self-professed parenting expert – the last thing we should do is encourage young kids to question their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
By the time they are tweens, our children have so much exposure through television and social media to issues surrounding gender and sexual orientation that they will naturally question things.
At this point, it is important to support them and discuss the changes they are undergoing. The focus should be on listening and helping them understand that they are works in progress. How they feel about themselves today could be very different from self-perception down the road.
They may not understand it right away, but it is an important message.
Parents in the 21st century have no shortage of challenges, and one of them is helping their children put things in perspective. Teenage life has never been more complicated, and it is often difficult for them to understand that they are ever-evolving.
Above all, we should encourage our children to just be … and “love them and let them know that we will be there for them – no matter what!”