Care and Feeding

My Teen Wants to Transition

Should I let them?

A mother looking conflicted.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 15-year-old has identified as nonbinary for several years. We are very lucky in the level of support they have. We live in a progressive part of the country, their school has been exceptionally helpful, the legal name change went smoothly, and they have a great group of friends and an amazing therapist. Lately, however, my teen has expressed a desire to take hormones to transition from a female body to a more androgynous or male body, saying that they don’t identify as a girl and don’t want to look like one. I am proud of their courage, but absolutely terrified about what this will mean as they leave the safe bubble of their high school and go out into the wider world. Trans people are getting killed and, more systemically, are being denied access to health care in parts of the country. I don’t know how much of this is teenage exploration that they might regret later. And it can have enormous consequences that scare the hell out of me. Their therapist says that the consequences of not transitioning can also be very serious, and I get that. But I don’t want my kid to become a visible target for someone else’s rage. I value your advice, and I’m hoping that you can help us to figure this out.

—How Do I Protect My Kid?

Dear HDIPMK,

Of course the thought of your child’s becoming a target for someone else’s rage is terrifying. Of course you want to protect them. But it sounds like you have been doing such a great job up to now of protecting your child by supporting them in every important way. This is not the time to pull the plug on that support. You note that your child has “expressed a desire” to begin masculinizing hormone treatment, but you don’t say what form this expression has taken (mentioned as a possibility they want to explore? a serious request for permission to begin transitioning? brought up multiple times with increasing urgency?) or how you have responded when the subject has been broached. I would say that you need to follow your child’s lead in this, and if they are talking about it seriously, then you need to take them seriously. I would not raise the question of whether their identity is “teenage exploration” they may regret later, since as you probably know, the surest route to shutting down a teenager’s willingness to engage in honest conversation with a parent is to bring up the possibility that what they’re experiencing may be merely a phase.

However, that doesn’t mean you should avoid talking frankly about the effects of hormone treatment, including those that may be irreversible. Your child is certainly old enough to contemplate this—and may already have researched and thought this through on their own—and make an informed decision. I’d venture to say that it seems doubtful that this is a passing phase if your child has been identifying as nonbinary for years (indeed, I’d say there is a good possibility that this was true, even if not yet named, long before they spoke of it to you—or perhaps to anyone). Many of the effects of hormonal transition are reversible, so in any case I wouldn’t turn this into a conversation about an irrevocable life decision.

But to get to the heart of your question: What I would absolutely not do is bring your fears into the discussion. Those fears are yours to deal with, not your child’s. I’m not suggesting that you suppress them, mind you—what you feel is what you feel—just that you work them out on your own, or with the help of a therapist of your own even as your child continues to talk to their own. This is a juncture in your child’s life that you can help them through, just as you have so beautifully helped them up until now. If, armed with all the information available, your child wants to proceed with hormone therapy, I believe you need to take a deep breath and take this journey with them. As much as we want to protect our kids from the evil in the world, none of us can. The best we can do is love them and help them feel strong and secure as they grow up and learn how best to protect themselves.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a thirtysomething nonbinary person who only came out a couple of years ago. I use they as my pronoun, and my social circle is pretty good about it (they forget sometimes, but they correct themselves and move on). The thing I’ve noticed, though, is that two or three friends who are parents use my pronouns when they’re speaking to me and other adults, but they don’t use them when they’re speaking to their children. They’ll say things like “Say ‘thank you’ to [my name] for the gift she gave you.” I don’t like being misgendered in this way, but I don’t have kids and don’t really spend much time around them, so I honestly don’t know if this is normal and I’m being oversensitive? Maybe my friends think their kids won’t understand they as a pronoun until they’re older? This has happened to me multiple times with different kids and parents, so I don’t think it’s just one case. Should I say something? If it helps, the kids in question are 6, 5, 3, and 2.

—Nonbinary and Confused

Dear NaC,

You won’t know what your friends are thinking if you don’t mention that you’ve noticed this and give them a chance to tell you. I suspect it’s a slip or a reversion to old habits, not a conscious decision. It may be a Freudian slip, to be sure—that is, they may be revealing something even they are not aware they (still) think/feel—but if they are otherwise making a genuine effort not to misgender you, I think you can take it on good faith that they are doing the best they can and sometimes screwing up. I would be surprised if any of them have consciously determined that their children are too young to understand that they can be a singular pronoun (the children are too young to be stuck in the grammatical rut that so many of us have had to dig our way out of in recent years).

You don’t have to be confrontational about this when you bring it up, and you don’t have to mention your hurt feelings. I would phrase it in the form of a question: “Here’s something weird I’ve noticed,” you might say. “When you talk to your kids about me, you tend to switch back to a pronoun I don’t use anymore. Did you know you were doing that?” If they weren’t aware of it, they’ll be deeply apologetic (and next time they do it, you can visibly raise your eyebrows or otherwise signal a reminder). If it was a “Freudian” slip, they will be mortified and will make a greater effort in the future. And in what I consider the unlikely event that it was an actual decision, don’t you think they would acknowledge that, however apologetically? These are your dear friends! That’s where you’ll have the opportunity to ask them not to do that anymore. Feel free to use me as backup if you need to persuade them that it won’t do their children any harm—and in fact will do them good, for the earlier they learn this, the better—that some people identify as he, some as she, and some as they.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 11 and has decided that she wants to be a he, and has decided to go by a new name. I want to support her and have been making an attempt to use he when I can, but I really think this is a phase that she will get over. In addition, I refuse to use her new name, and she’s been resentful of me for weeks over it. I told her that if she gets to be 15 and still wants to be a boy, then I will try using her name, but until then she’s still a child who is unable to understand the implications of this, and I named her what I named her! How do I navigate this hot-button issue?

—She’s a He Now?

Dear SaHN,

Eleven years ago you named her what you named her, but that name no longer works for him. One of the hardest things to accept about raising a child is that doing it well means letting go of complete control, bit by bit. Our children are people, separate from us, and they begin quite early in their lives to distinguish themselves as independent beings. Being a good parent includes supporting those efforts.

The way to navigate this hot-button issue is to call your child by the name by which he has asked to be called. I guarantee that if you don’t—if you continue to insist that this is a phase—by the time your kid is 15, you will have lost him, even if he continues to physically remain in your presence. If it turns out that this name switch is not permanent after all, you can graciously follow your child’s lead later on. As to his gender identity, you’re going to have to follow his lead on that, too. And if you want to be able to have a conversation with your child about the implications of this, you are first going to have to lay the foundation for a parent-child relationship based on trust and (mutual) respect. It’s not too late for that. You indicate that you want to be supportive. So be it.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Should I tell my parents how I’m about to conceive? I have been with my partner for eight years and have known since the beginning that he has a genetic condition that does not allow for sperm production and that there were medications he could take to try to temporarily create sperm (which might or might not work). At the time, I was young and more naïve and consequently braver. I thought: It’s all right, I’m not even sure I want kids, and if I do, we can always use a sperm donor, no big deal! Well, the time has come. I do want a child, he has tried the medication for more than a year, and … nothing.

He is 100 percent on board with the idea of using a sperm donor, so no issue there. The problem is that I don’t know what to do about my parents. They are very conservative, and often when things don’t go the way they think they should, they can be incredibly cruel. They terrorized me when I was growing up. My plan, therefore, was simply not to tell them what we were doing, even as we told everyone else, including the child at a very young age (as is recommended by professionals). Then a friend asked me incredulously how I’m planning on asking a 4-year-old to keep a secret from their grandparents, and the thought that I would have to tell them after all sent me into a tailspin of more than a year. My old terror came back in full force, and it became difficult to function.

Now I don’t know what to do. Everything I read online says full disclosure to close family is the norm. But I can’t bear the thought of it if they take the news as badly as I think they will. I’m afraid it would cause a miscarriage. (They don’t just say something cruel and then stop talking about it. When they found out I’d lost my virginity at 18, they called me a whore and threatened to throw me off a balcony, and that was just the start of a multiyear siege.) On the other hand, if I don’t tell them and my child inadvertently blabs a few years down the line, they will feel completely betrayed and their reaction may be even more dramatic. I also feel a duty to tell them because they were good parents to me in other ways and do not realize the extent to which they have terrorized me (it’s relatively normal to behave the way they do in our culture), and who doesn’t tell their own parents about a decision this serious? (And of course it’s possible they won’t react badly at all.) I’ve realized over the past year that my fear of telling them and of their potential retaliation is not unlike the stories I read of LGBTQ people. People in those situations often don’t disclose. But they are usually minors; disclosing presents a real risk to them. Does this principle (don’t tell if you’re at risk of facing retaliation) not apply to me because I am an adult? I feel at a total loss, and even writing this letter and contemplating telling them has left me feeling like I’m going to pass out. If possible, please don’t recommend that I cut them out of my life. I just don’t have the strength to do this now and handle this future pregnancy.

—SO Scared

Dear Scared,

I am so sorry you’re going through this. I’m so sorry you are in such turmoil and sorry that your childhood and youth were marked by this psychological and emotional violence. I want you to take some deep breaths while I point out a few things and make a couple of suggestions.

First, it would be really helpful for you to talk to a good therapist. The paralyzing anxiety and dread that’s been stirred up by the question of whether to tell or not to tell—the fact that just writing this letter brought on an anxiety attack, and that you fear that their reaction to your disclosure might distress you so much you might put your pregnancy at risk—is a bigger issue than the one around this particular decision. It’s time for you to tackle the work of repairing the damage that has been done to you, and finding ways to move through it and into this next phase of your life. I strongly suggest that you begin this work before you begin the work of parenting. Without help, you’re going to find it very hard, maybe impossible, to outrun the demons of your childhood while raising a child of your own. That is some heavy baggage you are carrying. You are going to need help unpacking it as well as help carrying what will remain even after you’ve unloaded much of it.

As to the specific question of whether you must tell your parents how your child is conceived, the answer is no. You wonder whether the exception to what you believe is the rule of full disclosure applies to you (because you are all grown up and “shouldn’t need” to protect yourself in this way). There is no “rule” about disclosure. You do not have to tell your parents anything you don’t want to tell them. You have no “duty” to tell them. This is your life, and they don’t get a vote about how you live it. If they can’t keep their opinions to themselves—or even if you just think they won’t be able to—then don’t invite them into a conversation about this private matter. It doesn’t matter what “the norm” supposedly is.

And if the time comes that they find out that you’ve kept the story of their grandchild’s conception a secret from them, and they feel betrayed, you will have the opportunity to put into practice what I hope you will have learned by then through therapy. You’ll be able to tell them why you didn’t feel you could share this with them. The bottom line is that this is your truth to share or to not share. Your truth, your decision. But I don’t think you’re going to be able to fully believe this without support that goes beyond mine. My very best to you.

—Michelle

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