Dear Dr. Michelle:
My 15-year-old son recently told me he wants to be referred to as they/them. He has started experimenting with makeup and is interested in women's clothing. I'm having a really hard time with this one. I am uncomfortable, I don't understand and don't know how to handle it. I want to support him, but I worry about him being bullied and what struggles he will face. Where do I even begin?
I am sorry for your discomfort and your struggle with how best to support your son.
Prepare to truly understand your son by getting yourself ready for acceptance. To do this, work through your own fears and biases. As your son ages, he will discover who he is in many aspects of his life. Since he is already expressing interests that you find difficult, now is the time for you to decide if you can accept whoever he will become, even if it challenges your own personal beliefs of comfort. Right now, your son needs to trust that he can discover who he is in a safe and supportive environment. Ultimately, your son will know If you accept him or not, and this will impact the relationship and help or hinder his ability to successfully manage self-discovery.
Walk through Worst-Case Scenario
To help deal with your own acceptance, talk yourself through the worst-case scenario and what would happen if your worst-case scenario came true. What would that mean for you? For your family? For your son? In the end, would it really threaten your family’s basic security and safety? Then ask yourself what you would do to solve or manage the worst-case scenario. What would you do to comfort yourself or other family members? What would you do to confront other’s counter beliefs and actions? What would you do to educate yourself and your family? What could you take control over to manage the worst-case?
Walking through this exercise can help you discover that what you thought might be unbearable can be managed and dealt with successfully through a change in your beliefs, behaviors, understanding and ultimately by choosing to be committed to accept your child no matter what it takes. Further, this exercise can help you sort through what really matters and how societal expectations might be creating barriers to gaining a better understanding of your son’s behavior.
Another way to gain acceptance is to educate yourself. Gather as much information as you can about gender expression, the use of pronouns, and the like. The more you expose yourself to what you don’t understand, your comfort level will increase, and your anxiety will decrease. You will begin to appreciate what you have control over and what you don’t. It is important to note that if your son’s interests are related to gender identity or an expression of his sexuality, you have no ability to change this, no matter your personal beliefs or what you want for your son.
As you are better prepared, you will then be able to turn your attention to understand the multitude of different reasons for your son’s requests and interests. Start by asking him for the reasons behind his choices and behavior. While a young child is not capable of identifying the “why” behind their behavior, a 15-year-old does have this capacity. When this skill set is nurtured, it will help your son recognize the purpose of his behaviors and interest, which will in effect help you know what he needs in the way of support.
For instance, is your son requesting to be referred to as they/them and expressing himself across traditional gender lines because it is his way to support, advocate, or challenge gender norms? Is he experimenting with make-up and women’s clothes because his generation is more exposed and has a higher tolerance for and greater comfort with expressing oneself outside of gender norms? Does he do it because he thinks it’s cool, he is curious, or he is creative and has a more expansive imagination than others? Or is your son trying to express something about who he is, or who he wants to be? Are his requests and behaviors related to larger questions or thoughts he has about his own gender or sexual identity?
Gender identity is a personal conception of oneself as male or female, while sexual identity is a person’s conception of their sexuality and who they are attracted to. For some people they are related, for others they are not. When people experiment with different styles, dress, and pronouns, it can be related to their gender or sexual identity, or it is not related at all. It may simply be a fashion statement, or a strong belief that fashion is not gender specific. A person’s gender and sexuality identity can be a very personal experience, and while your son’s behavior might be related to these questions, they may not be related at all.
Understand Your Son and Their Interests
Due to the personal meaning related to gender and sexual identity, it becomes more critical to not assume but to understand what your son’s interests and requests mean to him. Approach your son with an open mind and curiosity, with the intent to learn about who he really is with no judgement. You want your goal to come from a place of love and openness. You want to truly learn more about your son, what he believes, what he thinks, and what he understands.
To help talk to your son about the true nature of his interests, your discussions could include:
- Beliefs about pronouns and what it means to him to be referred to as they/them
- Why he wants to be referred to as they/them
- Other interests and curiosity about styles, dress, and self-expression
- Asking about his friends, who they are and how they express themselves
- Finding out if he has desires to take his self-expression further or if it is something he does only at home
- His understanding of gender and sexual identity and how that relates to him
If you find that the purpose of your son’s interests are more a reflection of personal expression, a fashion statement, simple curiosity or strongly held beliefs about gender neutrality, then your support could include helping your son learn more about his beliefs, how he can express himself in a way that fits his style, or how he can advocate for his beliefs.
If you learn that his choices are related to explorations about his identity, then it will be important for you to become more educated about gender and sexual identity, what it means, what to watch for, how to offer the right kind of support and how to prepare him for living his life according to his own truth. The following are some resources to better understand gender and sexual identity:
- How To Understand Your Gender
- You and Your Gender Identity
- Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child
Prepare for the Intolerance of Others
Regardless of the reasons behind your son’s interests, you will need him to be prepared for the intolerance of others. You mentioned being worried about how others will treat your son. While you want to allow your son to express himself how he desires, you also want to prepare him for the realities of how some people will react to his expressions. Not everybody is tolerant of the differences in others. Talk to him about the realities of the “isms” such as racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, just to name a few. Prepare him for how others might treat him given the choices he makes about what he wears or how he expresses himself. Tell him it is okay for him to be comfortable with his personal expression, but it is also okay to take control over when and who he expresses himself to.
In addition, help him develop a plan about how he can respond should others bully him or treat him badly. Prepare him for the types of things that people might say or do so he is not caught off guard. Your son is at the appropriate age to learn how to properly defend himself in times of need, regardless of his identity. Help him decide who he wants to express himself to and who he should avoid. This type of planning will help your son gain control over when and how to express himself depending on his environment. Reinforce the idea that the problem is not who he is, but rather other people’s intolerance for difference. Reinforce the importance of self-confidence and how to ignore what others think.
You will also want to prepare yourself for how others might perceive your son and your family and develop a plan now on how you will respond to expressions of intolerance from others. The best way for your son to learn how to believe in himself and to ignore what others think is through your role-modeling.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.