Helping Your Transgender Teen

A Guide for Parents

Irwin Krieger (Genderwise Press, New Haven, CT, 2011)

 

This is an important book, first of all to help parents recognize that some young people are unhappy and may become even more unhappy and suicidal if they are treated insensitively or rejected by the peers and adults they care about. This is a very complex subject, and the author tries to clear it up by defining and discussing such common expressions as "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" that are too often taken for granted.

The book is also important because it points out that teens should be informed there are benefits and risks in making a transition to a different gender. The recent vicious attack against a transgender youth in Maryland is evidence of some of those risks (although that specific case may have involved other factors). The author seems to accept the current belief that people don't simply choose their identity or orientation, and hence are not blameworthy, and nor should parents feel guilty about their child's gender problems. But he doesn't consider the difficult question of whether it's really a matter of biology or early education.

As a teacher I tend to believe that early education is extremely influential, but despite a "normal" family environment with standard models, some children grow up confused about the conventional behavior that is supposed to make them happy and doesn't. A notable case is a baby boy who was accidentally castrated after birth. His parents decided to bring him up as a girl, but despite all their efforts the "girl" eventually decided she would be happier with a sex-change operation!

I think that what has been said about the special problems of relatively rare transgender youth can also be applied to statistically normal heterosexual youth. If parents express disappointment or rejection of a young person because of interest or involvement in premarital sex, that young person may suffer unhappiness, and risk serious dangers too (depression, substance abuse, suicide).

Unfortunately there isn't much more than anecdotal evidence in this field, so I'm skeptical about uncritical claims that "mental health professionals" can be trusted to know what's best. If a young person is unhappy about conforming to conventional expectations about gender, I would recommend that parents read this book and follow much of its advice. The author lists other books and online resources as well. But except in desperate circumstances (e.g. threatened or attempted suicide), I advise caution in deciding to entrust your son or daughter to mental health practitioners.

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