August 28, 2023
May Part 1 of 1: When Parenting A Trans Child
This is a single session with our guest May. May is married to Charlie and they have a child named Jack.
Jack is 13 years old and was assigned female at birth, but identifies as they/him and approached May to start calling them Jack in middle school. May, who is wonderfully supportive of Jack, finds herself struggling to be the mediator between Jack and the conservative members of their family, including Jack’s father, Charlie. In this episode, May’s story will help us consider how we can best help a child navigate the complexities of gender identity and the associated stigmas.
CW: Brief mention of Self-harm and Statistics on Suicide in LGBTQ youth
15:10 Finding common ground between parent and child
16:16 Different ways of responding to a problem
25:00 Creating a validating environment
27:00 Buddhist meditation: Have strong back and soft heart
40:10 Feel the fear and do it anyways
Leslie-ism: Keep in mind advocacy starts at home.
Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.
TRANSCRIPT OF SHOW:
0:03 May: I feel like I have one foot in one world and one foot in the other. And I can only imagine that’s how Jack feels as well.
0:21 Leslie Cohen-Rubury: This is, Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast where you get to listen in as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. I’m your host, Leslie Cohen-Rubury. I’m a parent and a therapist with 37 years of experience helping families navigate this question.
Today we meet May. We only have one session together, and it’s an important one. May’s 13-year-old child, Jack, is trans non-binary and uses they/he pronouns. He came out to May in middle school, and though she has been supportive, her husband–Jack’s father–has been slower to get on board. May often finds herself struggling to be the mediator between Jack, her husband Charlie, and other more conservative members of the family.
In this session, we consider how best to help a parent navigate the emotions and family dynamics when a child comes out as trans. We explore how some of May’s own childhood beliefs are causing Jack real harm. There is a lot of discussion about the ways that Jack is growing up with both validating and invalidating experiences, and how that invalidation can be dangerous for LGBTQ+ youth. Understanding how your own childhood wounds impact your parenting is important for all parents.
I just want to note, though I don’t specialize in LGBTQ+ parenting, my knowledge and experience on family dynamics and parenting that promotes mental health and well-being in children is extensive. As with all children in my episodes, Jack is not a monster, and not a problem to be fixed; but rather a person to be understood.
There are two content notes for this episode. The first is that there’s a brief mention of self-harm. And the second, you will hear the term, preferred pronouns, used in this session. But that is now considered outdated because they are not preferred pronouns, they are just the person’s pronouns. Okay, now as a reminder, all the names and identifying information have been changed. And this show is for informational purposes only, and not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s begin.
Leslie: Just begin wherever you’d like to begin today.
3:08 May: I guess what I’d like to start with is, our child who was born female at birth, and now goes by they and he, our child was always girly, I guess you can say, as they grew up; but then we started to notice some changes around the fifth grade. They then wanted to cut their hair, dress a little more masculine. And we just figured it’s a tomboy stage. There was no conversations about gender exploration. It was just a physical outward appearance. Fast-forward to middle school. And they approached me and asked me to refer to them as Jack.
I was taken aback at first. However, I’m very open to all genders; but it was just confusing to me, because although they change their appearance, their mannerisms, interests, nothing quite changed along with it, just this identifying factor. So we had a conversation, Jack and I. And Jack had asked that I not discuss it with their dad at first, reason being my husband, Charlie, is a little old school when it comes to this sort of stuff. So I would say for the first couple of months, as they were navigating through this, we kind of kept it a secret to ourselves, my child and I.
We slowly started to bring Charlie into the conversation, when Charlie started making some comments…I’ll give you an example of one of them. “What are you trying to be, a boy now?” “Why are you dressing like a boy?” Jack took this very personal, came to me in tears one day, and said, “I don’t feel like Dad accepts me.” So it’s kind of caused me over the years to be caught in the middle of their relationship along with this feeling that Jack is not accepted. Jack is out at school, goes by the name Jack and he/them—very accepted at school. But our close family doesn’t understand it. Grandparents refuse to use that name. So it’s kind of, you know, all of it in a nutshell, but just kind of where I’m at right now. Because I feel like I’m choosing sides between my child and my husband and my family.
6:07 Leslie: Thank you for sharing your insight and your vulnerability and your willingness to be open. That is a gift to Jack. Jack is very, very, very fortunate to have you as his mom. That is clear. I really do feel that, and you’re describing a reality that isn’t good or bad. I want to get away from that because right now, we might be thinking, you might be feeling, “My husband’s horrible, this is awful.” There’s some reality here that we need to accept for both Jack–who is struggling to be accepted, I hear that–and to understand a little bit about what’s going on with Charlie.
So let’s back up a moment. It’s funny that I asked you to start wherever you wanted, like, begin where you are. I would like to point that out as a really important strategy for working and talking and communicating with Jack. That idea is that begin-where-Jack-is, when he came to you and said, “Mom, can you use they/he pronouns?” sounds like there might have been an adjustment. But you jumped in, I’m going to say wholeheartedly. Now, was that wrong? Maybe that’s actually an over-exaggeration. Maybe it wasn’t easy to jump in, wholeheartedly.
7:36 May: To be honest, not at first it wasn’t. Especially because I didn’t see the signs. It just appeared to me to just be, say, hormonal. Jack had just started menstruating, was uncomfortable with their body changing. I worked at a school and I saw similarity among the students that went to their school, the friends that they hung out with. So I tread very lightly with that at first. Initially, I just wanted to understand Jack’s feelings as to why he felt this way. So it was very emotional, that very first conversation. And Jack had just asked, literally, for me just to flip the switch right then-and-there; and just start calling him Jack and he that moment, without even having the conversation with my husband or my family. And I just explained to Jack that was difficult and confusing to me and it would take some time. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t love and accept him.
8:50 Leslie: Yes. So again, this idea of beginning where you are, beginning where Jack is—it’s a great guideline. It’s a great guideline to find out on any given day where are they showing up when they come home from school. And for yourself, as I’m asking you now, where are you, as you show up to this conversation? So let me get the timeline. Let me do some clarifying questions for a moment. They came out to you at fifth grade—that’s around 10 or 11, correct?
Leslie: And you said they’ve been accepted at school? When did that happen?
9:30 May: …hard to say, because the change in dress and hair started in fifth grade. So cutting the hair and just wearing more gender neutral clothes, t-shirt, and shorts, was fifth grade. Then unfortunately COVID struck so we spent most of sixth grade virtual, so they still went by their birth name and gender. We went back to school, seventh grade, and towards the end of seventh grade, that’s when they approached me about the change in the name. So we kind of just started with two teachers that they felt comfortable with in seventh, and their friends—their friends have known all along, close friends. And then it slowly—the trickle theory—started getting through the circle of friends, classmates. And then the start of this year is when, for the most part, they just went ahead on the sheet when they do orientation at the beginning of class, and they mark what preferred pronouns and names they’d like to go by. So I would say this year, it’s been more fully out at school, but not at home.
10:45 Leslie: Okay, yes, the struggle sounds like there’s quite a bit of struggle at home. I don’t know what you have done, but I would tell you right away that going to therapy is important, because you’re navigating something that may be new to you.
11:03 May: Absolutely.
11:04 Leslie: Does it feel new to you?
11:05 May: It’s very new. We tried therapy in the past, but we haven’t found the right fit for therapists for Jack. I do speak to a therapist weekly for myself. My husband is not the type of person that shares emotions, wants to fully accept and embrace this yet. So it’s a slow, slow process.
11:34 Leslie: So I’m going to jump on a word you just said: he’s not ready to accept this, yet. Do you have some indication that there is movement or there is a value that he has that he wants to learn to accept this? I mean, that was an important word.
11:49 May: Absolutely. I’ve noticed it over the last couple of years. Because in the beginning, it was denial, I think, even for myself, but he was adamant and angry, that he felt that it was peer pressure and the people that they hung around with at school. And because there has been no change in terms of the outward appearance with Jack, my husband’s now seeing that this might not be a phase after all. However, he’s still referring to them as she, her, and the birth name. I myself, when I’m around my husband, and even family, I just avoid names altogether, just to make Jack feel comfortable. When we’re out in public, at a store, I will use Jack and he/them, or introducing him to somebody at the first time.
But my husband…we’ve had long conversations about this. And I sent articles to him quite a bit just about teenage behavior, because he also struggled with our child becoming a teenager, and how teenagers today—you know, they’ve got a phone attached to their hand. And Jack likes to be by himself more and doesn’t interact with us more and doesn’t like hugs and kisses. And my husband takes all of that personally, and I just keep sending him teenage articles that this is typical teenage behavior. So that part of it he’s starting to get. He’s not as angry when Jack is in their room on the phone or not interacting with us. He’s accepted the hair, the color of the hair, the oversized hoodies, and the outward appearance. I think too, because he went to Jack’s school to pick him up after school and saw a sea of hoodies. And then he’s like, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right.” We’re making little progress, little progress.
14:04 Leslie: Beautiful, beautiful. That just makes a few ideas pop into my head, one being education. As we were talking about getting support and having the resources to understand, you’re just talking about a broad, broad education about: what does it mean to raise a child? And I want to remind us that Jack would like to be seen as a whole child—their identity, their gender identity is not all of them. It’s a significant important part, especially right now. And as you said, they like to spend time alone and they probably have some interests that you can connect to. So one of the things to remind you and your husband Charlie is that you still have a whole child and we want to remember that and connect to your child in very well-rounded ways. So that’s important.
And you naturally—I give you credit for that—you definitely figure that one way to connect, to help Charlie understand who Jack may be and who they are, is to find a common ground. I’m going to call that finding common ground, and you talked about being caught in the middle. So let’s talk about finding common ground, whether it’s between you and Charlie, whether it’s between Jack and Charlie, or whether it’s between you and your family or you and your friends.
May: Sounds good.
Leslie: So finding common ground is the idea that..it represents that we can have differences. And we have different levels of information. And if we find the common ground, we can grow. Finding the common ground gives everyone a place to connect, and from which each of us can do our own growing.
One of the questions I have for parents often is: whose problem is this? In this case, what are we dealing with and whose problem is it? In DBT–Dialectic Behavior Therapy–we have…it’s sort of interesting…there are five ways to respond to a situation. You can fix it with problem-solving. Obviously, when you can fix a problem, what a brilliant strategy, right? You want to fix a problem that can be fixed, but we put children in the category of we need to fix them. But I do not consider—and I really work very hard to share this with parents—that we want to fix our children.
So, the second way of responding is: you can change the way you see the situation. So we actually tried to develop a different or alternative perspective. In this case, it’s almost a demand on you and Charlie to find another perspective, to see your child for who they are, not who you think they should be, because that’s going to be in conflict. So we’re going to work on changing the way you see the situation.
The third way of dealing with any situation is: accept it and tolerate it. And that brings me back to whose problem is this. They need parents to take responsibility for what is difficult to accept. Sure, parents—when children are born, before they’re born—we have a vision of what we think we’re going to get. And we have expectations and all that. So parents are often grieving, without realizing it, the child that they don’t have. And so in your case, it comes with…at a certain time, where you’ve had a lot of experience of dealing with your child, first as a girl and a daughter. And now you have a son, who identifies as they and he, so accepting and tolerating that, that becomes “Okay, that’s my problem.”
And I don’t want to call it a problem. It’s mine to accept as a parent. And parents, really, that’s a big job. So that’s accepting it and tolerating it.
Another way of responding to a problem or situation is you could do nothing, and you could stay miserable. And maybe Charlie wants to do that, I don’t know. But I’m not hearing it fully. I think there’s more than do-nothing-and-stay-miserable, but we certainly have that as an option.
And then I add a fifth one: we can make it worse. We can take a situation, and there are things we can do that make it worse. And I’m going to ask you to put on your seatbelt for a minute because I want to be real with you; and help you understand that a child growing up transgender in our society is so different than it was even 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. And it’s still a challenge. And so what we know is that transgender children have a higher rate of suicide and suicidal ideation than non-trans children, non-LGBTQ+ kids. And so we want to understand that there is a very significant factor that has been researched and identified as helping that statistic, helping those numbers. You can turn that around by creating a validating…what we call a validating environment. Okay, and I can tell you right now, I want you to pat yourself on the back. You are creating a validating environment for your child.
19:45 May: Thank you. Thank you.
19:47 Leslie: And my heart goes out to the idea that this is a challenge for you, and an opportunity, an opportunity for your family to grow together. And at the same time there’s pain, there’s fear. There’s all kinds of emotion showing up. I imagine…I don’t know if anyone has said to you, “Don’t worry, don’t panic.” And I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” How can you not panic? How can you not worry, you’re going to have lots and lots and lots of feelings—your life just changed.
Leslie: Change is not bad. But change is challenging. And so we want to welcome—and that’s a strange word—but we want to welcome the feelings because they’re there to help us understand what’s going on.
Leslie: Grieving is okay. Becoming accepting is beautiful. And those two things can exist at the same time. You are not invalidating your child by needing your own space and time to grieve. I also heard you say you have your own therapist. Wonderful, I support that, that you have an opportunity to share your feelings as you go through this. You said your husband doesn’t really share his feelings—that may be more challenging to someone who is…it’s hard for them to be in touch with their own feelings. Okay, they have feelings. They do. They’re in there. And one time I think you said he, Charlie, was angry, or I forgot how you said it when…his response. And so people have feelings and being able to express that is important. And at the same time, we want to take responsibility for our feelings so that they don’t become invalidating. So let’s talk a moment about a validating environment and an invalidating environment. In your case, calling Jack “she” creates a sense of an invalidating environment.
21:44 May: Yes, it does. Yes, it does. I totally agree.
21:48 Leslie: And you said…Is this one of the ways where you feel caught in the middle? Because you said, “I feel caught in the middle”?
21:53 May: Yes. I feel like I have one foot in one world and one foot in the other. And I can only imagine that’s how Jack feels as well.
22:06 Leslie: So, do you continue to have open communication with Jack about…I would say right there, “Hey, Jack, I noticed I have a feeling of being caught in two worlds. I’m curious if you have that feeling. Or maybe it feels like you’re fully, you’ve got two feet planted Right where you are? Do you feel like your feet are underneath you? Do you feel like it’s on solid ground? Do you feel like you’re dancing between two worlds?” It’s a great place that you can start. Again: begin where you are. And then find out, be curious, allow open communication.
22:42 May: Absolutely. And that’s a conversation Jack and I have had quite some time. And frequently too. Especially when this first came up, I’ve always advised Jack, even regardless of this, be yourself. And we’ve always had that. Who cares what other people think, you know, we’ve kind of had that attitude. Even when Jack was younger—we’re talking real little—nothing ever really affected him in terms of what people thought about him. He’s got a very big heart. If there was somebody being bullied because they looked different, or they were a different size. Jack gravitated to those friends. Kind of Land of the Misfit Toys, it reminds me of that cartoon, and Jack just didn’t see even a toy is broken or a person is broken.
And we did have that conversation about, “Are you okay with being Jack at school and the birth name at home? And Jack? Jack actually, surprisingly, he said, “Yeah, Mom, I understand. This is hard for some people, especially grandma and grandpa because they’re older and they don’t get it.” It’s not to say it’s been easy because in the beginning when this started, I was very concerned for Jack because I found out he was cutting. And that’s when we started therapy, more for coping strategies. And I’m happy to say Jack hasn’t—it’s been almost a year and a half with the cutting.
There’s still the urge, but we have a code word that when Jack feels like he’s like that, that urge to do that. He comes to me and we talk, so we have a very close relationship. In a sense, I keep things from my husband when it gets too hard because sometimes he just doesn’t get it…I guess you can say you know, is the best way. So that’s kind of where the two worlds come. But Jack, I know, is in a better place. I keep periodic checks on him as far as is-it-okay-at-home. At school, he’s thriving, now that he’s out and…he’s embraced at school, he hasn’t had issues, I guess you can say,
25:22 Leslie: Oh, my goodness you are…it’s like that was a scripted campaign for the validating environments and why it’s so important. So the validating environment helped him switch. Now your situation: I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to say it was invalidating. But as he came out to the family, to you first and then to Dad, they were struggling, I’m sure, with tons of emotion to be accepted by Dad. I think your words were that they said to you, “Dad doesn’t understand me,” or, “Dad doesn’t accept me.” And so with that, that creates that feeling of being invalidated, not being seen or heard for who you are. And with that feeling can come some intense feelings. And with intense feelings can come those urges to cut because they don’t have the coping skills.
Interestingly enough, sometimes those behaviors are communicating to us that, “I’m in so much pain.” But the pain is part of the environment, environment being family, friends, et cetera. So it’s really wonderful to see that the school environment is accepting—that’s not always the case. That’s beautiful. It’s incredible that they, from an early age, felt that it was more important to support a person than the judgment that others might have towards them. That’s a sure sign of resiliency for Jack, as they go through this process themselves.
And being able to create more of that, as it goes forward…Let me go back to the being-caught-in-the-middle and how you’re moving slowly through that process at home with Charlie. So there is a meditation, I once heard—I think it’s been said by many people, I heard it in the context of a Buddhist meditation—and the idea of it was to have a strong back and a soft heart. And it’s interesting that—I don’t know if you saw that just now, but just to say what I just did—as I said, “strong back, “I put my hand up, as if I’m saying to someone, “Stop.” And then I put my hand on my heart, as if to say, “I feel.”
So this idea as you’re moving forward is really important. And I think it’s the place where you can find solid ground for yourself; of, “How do I navigate? How do I navigate the people around me? How do I help people move forward and understand?” Because I do want you to be fierce in your setting limits and advocating and supporting Jack and their expression, their gender expression. We want to be an advocate, and for all of our children. So we need courage.
So this putting-up-my-hand is setting limits, limits that are effective, not limits that are blind and not limits that are polarized or extreme. We’ll talk about that in a minute. But to have this strong backbone that says, “I have courage to stand up, to have this strong back.” And then the idea of having a soft heart with compassion for whatever situation you’re dealing with.
So that’s the general idea. Let’s talk about specifics. How does that sound to you? And do you have ideas going through your head as to, “Oh, I can do this, I can do that.” I’m happy to help you identify some more specific and practical ways of enacting, embodying this idea of strong back and soft heart.
29:10 May: Just some things that come to mind…when we go clothes shopping, we go to the men’s department. And I’m constantly asking Jack, “What can I do to support you? Is there something I can do?” So I think that was a big step for me. Just clothes, something as simple as clothes. I’ll bring something home for him, I find a shirt that he might like that I found in the men’s department. And just the fact that showing I accept them, along with the fact that my husband no longer shakes his head, rolls his eyes, or wrinkles his nose at it. So it’s baby steps. [Laughter]
29:57 Leslie: Yes, yes, yes. Wonderful. So this idea of strong back and setting limits. And I think you’re giving examples of beautiful ways that you’re validating for Jack. Again, functional validation is saying, okay, walking into the men’s department, you didn’t have to say a word, and Jack knows you get them, you understand what they are looking for and how to do that.
[Music: Dreams in Nature by Olexy]
Leslie: Hi, I’m just cutting in here to let you know that there are conversations that happen outside of the recording to assess the family dynamic and specific concerns. In the second half of this episode, May speaks about being afraid of her husband’s anger. A lot of May’s response is about her own history, and fears around upsetting the people in her life. There is a difference between being afraid of someone because they are causing you harm and being afraid of someone because you have a difficult time managing your response to anger. Not all anger is dangerous. So please keep that in mind as you listen to the rest of this session…
Leslie: So let’s go back to this idea of strong-back/soft-heart and compassion. How do you have compassion when you know that what your husband might be saying or doing is hurting Jack.
31:49 May: That’s hard. Yeah, it’s hard.
31:51 Leslie: Oh, that’s hard. That’s a that’s put you in quite the…as you said, caught in the middle, or dilemma. So how do you deal with that?
32:00 May: Well, I do try to keep us cohesive as a family by not spending, when all three of us are home, not spending alone time with Jack and alone time with Charlie. I try to keep us all together business as usual. And it just keep it, that this, no matter what, this is our child, no matter who they are. And Charlie and I have had that conversation too, that this isn’t going to change our love for Jack. Jack is Jack. Jack is still living and breathing. What he’s struggling with, Charlie, I think is the difference between sexual identification and gender. Because he’s trying to understand well, what does this mean, down the road?
And we’ve had that conversation that we don’t know, this is a fluid situation, Jack may change his mind. That’s in terms of who they like. Right now, they don’t like anybody. They’re just there. He goes by asexuals. Like, “Mom, I don’t like anybody right now. I like the air.” And we’re always like, “Well, that’s good. Because you’re thirteen And how do you date at thirteen? You know, that type of thing. So I’ve just learned, especially on the weekends, when we’re all together as a family: keep it normal, just keep it light, just enjoy each other’s company. And business as usual, I guess, and we’ll just get through it.
33:40 Leslie: Wonderful. So you’re building on the resilience of the family, the connection of the family, the whole family as a unit. I hear the strength of that. And can I push a little bit on the idea of it? Because I don’t know: are you someone who doesn’t like to make waves?
34:00 May: Yes. And I kind of learned that as a child, because growing up, my father worked and traveled a lot. And it was myself and my brother and I was told when he comes home, don’t give Dad any bad news. So we would sit quietly, we had to be happy and maybe that’s just inbred in me. Wow. And it’s just very interesting how now—fast forward to me and my marriage and my family. My mom, I guess I don’t want to say protected us, but she was the wall and she kept things from my dad because she didn’t want to ruffle his feathers. And sometimes it was walking on eggshells, and it’s very similar in my family, too.
34:57 Leslie: So that’s a pretty amazing thing that you grew up with this, what I’m going to call a myth; the myth of: don’t tell your dad any bad news. Isn’t it remarkable? I get blown away. I’ve been in this business 35 years. And sitting here with you today, I’m like, it is remarkable how our children, as they grow up and who they are, they will ask us to grow up as well, and deal with our childhood wounds. And so all of a sudden, that issue—and I’m going to call it an issue—is showing up for you in such a real way. It’s like, I just touched it by saying, “Are you someone who doesn’t like to make waves?” And you said yes and told me this incredible story right now. Of the, “I am going to make the family life go on business as usual.”
Well, I’m going to suggest that we ruffle, we stir the pot a little. That is what this situation is asking you to do. Because, yes, it is critical that we have one parent who is creating a validating environment. Is it good enough? I’ll take it. Can we say “Yes, that’s fantastic”?… And we love to get parents on board, creating a validating environment. Let’s try.
Leslie: And so here’s that strong back. Here’s that courage you need. Maya Angelou has a poem or a quote on courage, and says it’s the greatest of all the virtues. So you’re going to tap into courage. My own version of courage is having the fear and doing it anyway.
May: I like that.
Leslie: So we’re not going to get rid of the fear for you, of saying something that might get someone upset. We’re going to ask you to have the fear and do it anyway. And we’ll combine that with that strong back, because this is a challenge for you. And I hear things like well…even Jack said, “Well, I understand because my grandparents are older.” Older has nothing to do with it. Hey, I don’t want to stop learning at whatever age I’m at, whether it’s 70, 80 or 90. I hope I don’t want to. Some people will put their foot down and say they don’t want to learn. Okay, I’m going to have to deal with that differently.
But I don’t want to have a myth. And I would say, “Jack, that’s not okay. They can be your grandparents. And they can also learn to be open. So we’re going to keep working on this.” So this idea of ruffling some feathers or stirring the pot is going to be a challenge for you and an incredible opportunity for you to heal some of that tiptoeing-around-on-eggshells feeling.
Children ask us to do our own work. Jack…sounds like he’s taking responsibility for themselves. And now it’s time for you. Not that you haven’t, believe me. As I said, you’ve done an incredible amount of work to show up where you are today…and over these past, I guess it’s three years. And also saying, “Okay, what’s the opportunity here for me?” And this opportunity really is about looking at that wound of being afraid.
Leslie: Does that show up in Jack in any way? Are they also showing any signs of being afraid to ruffle feathers? I mean, I guess by saying that statement about grandparents and maybe even being upset that Dad doesn’t understand them, there might be some fear of upsetting them.
38:44 May: I think more so upsetting Dad and grandparents. However, at school, Jack honestly just doesn’t care. He’ll talk about some kids that get bullied for being gay at school, one of which is his very best friend. And I said to him, “How does that make you feel?” And he said, “Well, it makes me mad when it’s one of my friends.” And I said, “Well, what about you?” And he said, “I really don’t care what people think about me.” So I think when it comes to family, he’s worried about hurting them and being accepted by their own flesh and blood. But when it’s outside of that, he’s got a stronger outer shell.
39:40 Leslie: Right. And I’m going to put this responsibility of making waves more on you than on Jack. Jack is showing up to be themselves and we can see that they are doing that work. And I think some advocacy on your part is like, “Wow, okay, what am I going to do?” And, yes, we want to be effective. And at the same time, it’s sort of like that push/pull kind of feeling, I want to make sure I’m moving forward. So I would say that your baby steps might want to feel like giant steps.
Leslie: So I’m going to push you to say: what would a giant step be? Because maybe a giant step for you is a baby step for someone else, knowing that you come from a background of not wanting to make waves and not wanting to upset anyone. And so, yes, that might be very scary. And what is your feared catastrophe, your feared outcome? We want to look at that so we can understand for ourselves: what is the feared catastrophe that you think might happen, if you take those giant steps?
40:55 May: I guess I’ll start with Charlie, with my husband. If I were to take a giant step—I would have to ask permission of Jack to do this, of course—but to sit down with Charlie and say, “Okay, starting today, Jack is Jack, and we need to start referring to him as he.” And just going back to when this started, and literally the anger that my husband felt, and…I felt it to a certain extent, too, because we both wanted a daughter. Not to say a girly, girly daughter, but we both wanted a daughter and the name we chose was special to us. So there was anger, there was grief. I mean, I went through them all, I still go through it. It’s almost like a death where you go through the emotions. But I guess my fear of the outcome of me saying that to my husband, would be going back to that anger again. And the repercussions that it would have on Jack, because we’re…I wouldn’t say we’re in a great place, but we’re getting through it better than we were in the beginning. So I just would be afraid of opening that wound all over again.
42:26 Leslie: I appreciate your sensitivity. And yes, that anger, it sounds like it was really rough. And that anger does damage. We know that that anger is damaging, could even be traumatic, depending on how Jack perceived it. There is repair. There is forgiveness work that can be done down the line that really can happen. Not now at this moment. But I love your giant step. But I have a question I want to clarify. Are you, yourself, using Jack’s pronouns and Jack’s name in the house?
43:05 May: With my husband, I’m calling Jack their birth name. Or I avoid it, and just do it neutral.
43:11 Leslie: Okay, there’s your giant step. I’m going to be clear, I’m going to help you find your first giant step. Your first giant step is not to get Charlie, right now, to say it, but for you to do it. You might say, you might have a conversation with Charlie, “Charlie, you might notice I’m changing the rules of the game starting now. I am in conflict inside my values, within myself, between wanting to keep the peace in the family, and wanting to create a validating, or supportive environment for Jack. And because…” — remember we talked about those five waves of responding—”…because I don’t want to make it worse for Jack. If I don’t create that validating environment for him at this level in our family, then I will actually put that problem on myself and say, I am now contributing to what might be harder and detrimental, have a consequence to Jack. So starting now, you will hear me use only Jack and only their pronouns.” Does that make sense?
May: It does. Yes.
Leslie: And what do you think will happen when you present it in that way rather than, “Now it’s time for you to do this as well”?
44:32 May: I think he would be more open, because when we’ve had conversations before—not even regarding gender, it was regarding the whole teenage phase, navigating the life of a teenager and he just couldn’t…the phone—we’ll just use the example of the phone. Jack’s always got the phone in his hand, Jack’s always texting, you got to repeat things a couple of times. And it just was bugging Charlie so much. So I sat down with Charlie, and I said to him, “I need you to help me with this. I feel like I’m the police. I’m the bad guy all the time, I need you help me as a united front, on how we navigate through the teenage years.” So we’ve had the conversation before and he’s, “I didn’t realize you were struggling so much.”
So that’s that. To be honest, I don’t know how the response will be with this. Because that’s, you know, it’s very, he’s very sensitive about it. And I think it’s more out of fear for Jack. He wants to protect his child, and he’s worried because you see it on the news about the bullying. He’s worried about Jack’s safety.
45:57 Leslie: Yes, there is concern; and I understand his fear as all parents of a transgender child has a higher…there’s a higher risk. And again, I’m going to repeat that statement that research shows that the validating environment protects your child from the negative consequences of that. It’s amazing because your child feels the support now, just as I said, for you, you have conflicting values within yourself. And I would at some point, talk to Charlie about that, because you just said he’s fearful. So you want to capitalize on that idea that he’s fearful of things getting worse for Jack. Well, if he’s fearful of things getting worse, that is a big motivation to change his ways—because there’s research and I can steer you towards that research—there is so much research that says what happens at home is going to make a difference to your child out in the world decrease by 50%, suicidal ideation. Decrease by 47% of suicide attempts.
Those are significant numbers. So education—here we come back to that educational piece is important. But understanding that he’s going to have conflicting values. He still wants the child who he thought he was getting. He doesn’t want to give that up. There’s something called radical acceptance. And in the radical acceptance skill and dialectical behavior therapy, we actually have two parts. We can be willful, where we are just sitting on our hands—we are just fighting reality, is what it is. We’re fighting reality. We can make things worse when we fight reality. Because the other path of willingness to accept what is. To accept reality as it is, is tremendous amount of work. The difference is, you’re going to feel work on either path. Willfulness takes a lot of energy.
As matter of fact, in my mind, willfulness and fighting reality is literally more exhausting. Because if you’re fighting something…I don’t know about you, but anytime I play around fighting or even are actually fighting, I am exhausted. I don’t like those fights that I’ve had, I’m exhausted. And if I play-fight, I’m tired—I have grandchildren, so now I play-fight. And boy, I get exhausted that way, too. So fighting exhausts us.
And yet, it’s very hard to let go of what I want. You’ve talked about it, we’ve touched on it, the idea that there is some process of grieving that we need to go through. And again, I say that to all parents, because if we use our ideas and our expectations of what we want from a child, we are fitting them into our mold. We are not allowing them to be who they are. We are saying, “Oh, you’re growing up in my flower bed. I want you to be a tulip.” Meanwhile, there are rows. How could we even think of trying to make a rose a tulip? And yet we do that with children with our expectations. So conversation with Charlie about understanding that he has a value of getting what he wants, which is a great value. We all need to know how to get what we want, right? And the value of having a relationship with his child. And if there’s a priority there, which it sounds like there is, I would be tapping into that because he doesn’t want to make things worse.
Leslie: So find out his language. His language is, “I don’t want bad things to happen to Jack.” Okay, repeat that. Pick up on his language, Charlie’s language, and use it in your conversations. Creating a relationship between them…I mean, it changes in my mind, a little bit of that’s where they can find their common ground. It’s going to be harder to find the common ground when Jack doesn’t feel safe. You know, I think he’s giving his dad a little bit of a pass. I think he’s giving his dad a little bit of a pass and saying, “Yeah, I get that it’s really hard for him,” like he’s almost taking care of his dad. And we don’t want that role reversal. We don’t want Jack taking care of Charlie, we want Charlie being the parent.
And so yes, we’re asking Charlie to do the work. The hard work, just as I said, you’ve got your work to do. Charlie’s fears may also include some childhood wounds, but he’s not here to speak for himself. So I can’t ask that question. But I bet there’s something coming up for him, just as there is for you in this situation. Was there bullying on his part? Did anyone ever call him names—derogatory, anything derogatory—instead of trying to guess I would say that something might be showing up. That makes it hard in the present moment for him to connect to Jack as easily as it’s…and I use that word gently, because I don’t think it’s easy. But your willingness is the word I would use, with willingness to do that. So it sounds like Charlie does talk to you.
51:28 May: Yes, he does. It takes some…you got to put it in little pieces for him. I’ve learned this over our marriage, you can’t lay something real heavy on him. Along with other things, you just got to put it in bite-sized pieces and let him digest it. Give him time. It could be days, it could be a week for him to then come back. You can’t drop a bomb on them and then say, “How do you feel about that?”
52:09 Leslie: Great. So I support that. And because I know you now, [Laughter] I’m going to teach you a little trick for how to drop a heavy weight on someone. Because, guess what? Sometimes it needs to be heavy. I’m not going to tiptoe around. Remember those tiptoeing around feelings? So when I am going to deliver—and I can deliver heavy information to a client or anything, I even did a little bit with you.
Do you remember when I said, “I’m going to ask you to put your seatbelt on”? I was prepping your whole body for hearing something that you might not want to hear. I wanted you to put yourself into a safety place. I mean, it was maybe a weak metaphor, I could have taken more time to work on that piece. But we all know what it means to put on your seatbelt: it means buckle up to be safe. So you can do that with Charlie as well. First of all, you can notice your timing, if he comes in possibly from a long day of work. And you know that is not the time he likes, go, “Okay, great.” I’m going to respect his need for timing, to be sensitive about that. And I can then just start with, “Hey, Charlie, if you have five minutes?” Or you can prep it by saying “I want to share something and I’m not going to tiptoe around. So I will respect the fact that you might need time to digest it. So I’m going to say it and give you space.” Does that sound like it would work for you?
Leslie: And I would actually say that to Charlie, too, “Does that sound like it would work for you?” And you’ll probably get the same response that you just gave me. So the idea is that I’m going to tell someone—I guess they do this when you give a lecture—tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them what you’re going to tell, and then tell them what you told them. So really, I’m just going to give someone a heads-up. And the other thing I might say with Charlie is, “What I might say might be met with some anger. Is it possible for you to notice if that anger’s showing up? Because I would like to share this information; without being shut down with your anger, without the response? I will be happy to hear a response. But can I share something with you, give you some time to digest it, and then express whatever feelings you have in what we would call wise-minded way?”
So when someone is screaming, we call that emotion-minded. They’re acting in emotion, the emotion is controlling them. What we want—and we’re never too old to learn this stuff—what we want is, we want to teach Charlie or give him an opportunity to share his feelings, anger, grief, frustration, fear, whatever it is, but in a wise-minded way; where he expresses those feelings. He’s not controlled by those feelings and acting out.
So another way of saying that would be to say, “I imagine, or I’m going to make an assumption, that after telling you what I’m going to say, you might feel angry. I am happy to understand what your feelings are. I do not want to be a recipient of your emotion-mind, where your emotions are controlling you and you’re yelling at me.” That’s your giant step towards the tiptoeing-around part. And you might need some practice. You want to try practicing? [Laughter]
55:28 May: I just took some notes, so okay, we’ll try.
55:31 Leslie: Okay.
55:34 May: I’m just writing one last thing now. “Charlie, is this a good time to share something with you that I can no longer tiptoe around?”
55:56 Leslie: “Well, what does that mean?”
55:59 May: “Well, this might make you angry, but I want you to hold off responding, I just want you to take some time to digest and share your feelings with me. And I imagine you might feel angry when you first hear this. But I would like you to keep those emotions at bay, until you’ve had some time to really think about what I’m about to tell you.”
56:24 Leslie: Great, that was really good. You know, there’s always tweaking it. And I think I can’t believe that you really–that first time, you really just—I felt your backbone. You can practice that gesture as well for yourself, when you’re going in, you’re going to put the hand up, “I really don’t want a response.” And the heart: “I understand you might need some time to digest, and you have feelings that need to be heard as well.” In both of what you said, I felt just strong back and I felt your soft front, where we’re acknowledging he’s going to have feelings. We’re acknowledging that he might need time. Those are respectful things to say, and you’re putting a limit to, “I don’t want the anger to control you. And I don’t want to be a recipient of that acting-out-anger.”
And so beautiful. And it reminds me of another way of saying it, which is, “Can you listen without reacting? Because I want to hear your response.” There’s a difference between reacting and responding. And the reaction is often the emotion mind. It’s that impulsive response. And so it’s nice to be able to say, “I want to share something with you, would you be able to listen? And we’ll take another time after you have a chance to digest, we’ll take another chance for you to respond.”
Leslie: Again, I’m trying to find his language. Obviously, if you went to him with, “that’s emotion-mind and wise-mind,” he might look at you. [Laughter] But again, I don’t tiptoe around that. I use that language. So what do you think will happen, when Jack sees this change in your behavior? Meaning, you’re now at home using his pronouns and his name—what do you think’s going to happen for Jack?
58:23 May: Definitely a better, stronger relationship with their dad; the way it was—before all of this came to be—a stronger cohesive family. Better self-esteem for Jack, less fear for me that Jack is going to hurt himself or be depressed or anxious.
58:51 Leslie: Exactly. Beautiful.
58:57 May: I don’t want him to be one of those statistics that you shared earlier.
59:00 Leslie: I can feel your heart when you say that. And that is totally clear that you are living the value to make sure that that doesn’t happen. So you keep doing what you’re doing. You face your own fears. Because I don’t tiptoe around when I see a problem. I say, “Okay, that is getting in your way. And you don’t want to tiptoe around that.”
Leslie: I can totally understand why you do what you do. Because you’ve had all those years training to believe—what we call a myth, a mistaken belief—that it’s not okay to get other people upset. And now you’re going to model…One of the things that Jack will see when you do this—whether he’s aware of it or not—he’s going to feel, very deep down, “Well, Mom’s speaking up. Mom’s okay. Mom can handle this.” If Mom can handle this, what’s the message we’re sending to our child? We’re showing them how to handle life’s challenges.
Leslie: That is, right there, an extremely important way of modeling what it is, the skill that you need Jack to go through life with. He needs to know how to stand up and support himself and you are modeling that.
1:00:22 May: Absolutely, thank you so much.
[Music: Live in the Moment by Lesfm]
1:00:40 Leslie: I want to thank May for opening up to the complexities of raising a child, especially a trans child. She was truly open to hearing how there were elements of invalidation in the home. I imagine that it wasn’t easy to hear that she was contributing to the invalidation. And yet we heard loud and clear her willingness to face the uncovered truth that her attempts of keeping the peace were actually harmful to her child.
And I’m going to repeat what I said in the intro: As with all my episodes, Jack and their gender identity is not a problem to be fixed—he is a person to be understood. I just want to remind you, as parents, to take a look at the environment that you are creating at home for your child. Creating a validating environment is the foundation of your child’s well being, regardless of their gender or sexuality. I’m going to say that again: Creating a validating environment is the foundation of your child’s well-being.
There are so many subtle and not so subtle ways that we invalidate our children. In this episode, May validated Jack by taking them shopping in the men’s department, while also invalidating them by not using their chosen name at home. So take a moment to think about what validation looks like in your home. And I’ll ask you to think a little harder. In what ways is your child asking to be seen and understood that you may not have acknowledged yet? And how do you overcome your own childhood trauma to stand as a fierce advocate for your child? Parenting reminds us that we need to take a good hard look at ourselves.
[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]
Join us next week for another skills episode, where we will learn more about parenting LGBTQ+ kids and their allies with special guest Lindz Amer. Lindz wrote a book called Rainbow Parenting and, as a trans queer adult, they help us unpack the assumptions we make about raising our children. Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode. And please check out our show notes for resources about parenting LGBTQ+ kids. You can find a full transcript of this episode and apply to be a guest on Season 2 by visiting ismychildamonster.com. The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, Gabriela Glueck and me. Special thanks to Michelle Scrapper, MJ Wittenberg, and Rowan Bianchi for their help on this episode, and to Eric Rubury for his continued support. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And keep in mind: advocacy starts at home
Transcribed by https://otter.ai edited by Eric Rubury