Care and Feeding

My Teen Changes Their Queer Identity Every Week and I Can’t Take It Anymore

I’m beyond supportive of whoever they end up being, but this whiplash is exhausting.

An array of queer pins.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon and 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,

I need some help gaining perspective on my 15-year-old child’s whiplash approach to gender and sexuality. For the last three years, they have been on a journey with regard to their sexuality, declaring and changing identities one every few weeks or months, even when those identities have been both contradictory (how can one be both asexual and polyamorous?) and hypothetical (my kid isn’t dating and hasn’t dated). They are committed to being anything but cisgender and hetero, and that identity—whatever it turns out to be—appears from their actions and words to be the central part of their sense of self. They spent a lot of time on queer wikis, looking up new possible identities. They avidly “ship” fictional characters into same-sex couples, express anger/disappointment when shows/books have hetero couples, and talk constantly about LGBTQIA issues, representation, etc.

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I have been, and want to be, supportive. My kid deserves to be loved and celebrated for who they are, and however their identity settles out is fine with me. But I am also struggling with these rapid changes. In the last two weeks, my kid has changed their name once and pronouns twice, colored their hair, worn exaggeratedly feminine eye makeup, pinned their hair up to look masculine, purchased a bikini and a dress and then asked me to buy them a binder (because they think it would be “fun” to look like a boy sometimes). At this point, it feels like they’re trying on identities like costumes, and that makes me very uncomfortable. None of it feels authentic—it seems more like a bid to stand out in a crowd or perhaps to find the limits of my acceptance.

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I have worked so hard to make sure my kids know they are loved unconditionally, but if this kid is looking for a boundary, maybe I should set one? I literally squirmed when I wrote that sentence; setting a random limit on acceptance goes against everything I believe. But at the same time, I am so, so tired of hearing about their identity day after day after day and of trying to keep up with the changes. They’re a great, smart, interesting kid for a dozen different reasons; their gender/sexuality is just one aspect of their personality. Would it be wrong of me to say, in essence, “I love you, and will never not love you. When you figure out your identity let me know, and in the meantime can we maybe stop talking about it all the time?” Also, as the world opens up and my kid spends more time outside of our home, can I/should I ask them to be more thoughtful in how they present themselves? It seems to me that trans and nonbinary people cannot simply change their identities and expression for “fun,” so my kid’s behavior feels a little bit like cosplaying in a way that could be hurtful. Or do I just keep keeping my mouth shut, do my best to remember this week’s identity, and pray that this phase ends soon?

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—Tired and Confused

Dear Tired,

Back in my day, we hid our evolving sexualities and gender identities from our parents! While that wasn’t better, it was definitely less annoying, probably for everyone involved.

OK, but seriously, this kid is trying on identities like costumes, which is a normal part of adolescence, as is, for some people, needing all of these changes to be seen and acknowledged. It’s extremely challenging for you as a parent to remain supportive when your kid is constantly contradicting themselves, but it’s their prerogative—up to a point. No matter what your pronouns are, it’s not OK to be an asshole to your mom. Your kid is looking for a boundary, you’re absolutely right—but it’s not a boundary on your acceptance, which they seem to have correctly intuited is genuinely boundless. The boundary is on their behavior, and how they are allowed to treat the people who care about them.

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You can’t ask your kid to stop talking about gender and sexuality or table the question of their identity until they have it “figured out,” which presumes a kind of endpoint in their journey that might not exist for a while, or ever. But you can set limits on when or how you want to engage in these conversations. It’s reasonable and healthy to say, “I don’t have the bandwidth for another conversation about this right now. I’m busy with [thing that is important to you]. Can we set a time to pick this back up when I can focus better? You are important to me, and you deserve my full attention.”  You’ll get a lot of pushback at first, probably, but stick to your guns, and follow through on your end of the bargain. It gets better, or at least different.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I was raised Jewish and my partner was raised atheist, but while we celebrate the main Jewish holidays with my family, we also have decided to let our 8-year-old daughter choose if she wants to actually attend Hebrew school and have a Bat Mitzvah, as most of the reform synagogues in our area charge a lot of money for the programs, plus it’s a massive time commitment. We’ve explained what a Bat Mitzvah is and how long it takes to study for one, and until now, she hasn’t been interested in it, but last weekend, she attended her cousin’s Bat Mitzvah and her attitude has completely changed. She was bored during the ceremony, but she loved the small after-party, which my sister went all out for, and has now been begging us to send her to Hebrew school. She said she likes celebrating Passover and Hanukah with her grandparents, but she really wants to sing the special songs and wear a fancy dress and have a special party like her cousin did.

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My partner thinks that since she’s only excited about going because of the party and attention that comes with a Bat Mitzvah, in a few years she may decide she actually doesn’t want that and we’ll be out several thousand dollars. I will admit that I’ve always hoped that my daughter would have a Bat Mitzvah, but I also remember that at her age, I too was more interested in the big party and presents my siblings got than in sitting through prayers I didn’t fully understand. But as I got older, I learned more about the meanings of different prayers and the parts of the ceremony, and was able to fully appreciate it. And at her age, Hebrew school at most reform synagogues is just learning the alphabet and playing games with other kids—it’s not like we’d be having her read the Torah for six hours every Saturday. I think that since we promised our daughter that she could choose if and when to start Hebrew school, we should honor that promise, no matter why she wants to join, but I also understand my partner’s hesitation, as our daughter has gone through phases of being really into one activity and then quitting after a few months when she finds something new. What do you think we should do here?

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—Hebrew School Hang-Ups

Dear H.S.H.,

Look, I don’t want to come off as some kind of religious extremist here, but have you considered … practicing Judaism?

I understand the challenges of raising interfaith kids, and I hear you about the expense and time commitment involved in preparing for a Bat Mitzvah. But in the absence of any Jewish observance or education apart from a twice-annual holiday celebration with the grandparents, how can you expect your 8-year-old to want to have a Bat Mitzvah for any reason besides “it’s a fun party with lots of presents?” Of course that’s going to be her takeaway—she has no other basis for extrapolating the meaning of that milestone. Also, she’s 8. It’s not fair to her to expect her to make a decision this big without enough information, but also, it’s not fair to her to expect her to make a big decision, period. Your husband is second-guessing her choice, which isn’t great, but it also wasn’t a good idea to make the choice hers to begin with.

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Without being explicit about the fact that you’re rolling back the promise you made to let her choose her own Hebrew school adventure, see if you can stall a bit by exploring what having a meaningful regular engagement with Jewish religious or cultural life would mean for you as a family. These traditions resonated with you at some point, and now it’s up to you to explore what that might mean for you as an adult. While it might take some time to find the path that feels right to you, you can at least find company in your search. There is a whole generation of people who were raised Jewish and are now actively looking for ways to raise kids who have a connection to some aspect of that faith. It might be the rituals and traditions, the cultural and historic aspects, or the questioning, searching, argumentative way of engaging with philosophical questions. Or maybe you’ll find that none of this is actually important to you and that you’re content with things as they are—in which case, your daughter should just have a regular 13th birthday. That’s also fine. But expecting her to be the only religious person in your family from ages 8 to 13 is a recipe for lasting confusion and resentment, even if it culminates in a great party.

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• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner was raised by a father who yelled, withheld affection, and used shame as a tool of control. His family would describe it as “being hard on the boys,” but we both recognize it was toxic, damaging, and not OK. His mom was largely silent about the treatment. He and we have done a lot of work over the past few years to undo the damage, and he’s a loving, sensitive father to our 2-year-old.

The issue is that his parents want all of the traditional grandparent relationship with our child (and another on the way), but my partner has never resolved with them, much less discussed, the pain that their parenting caused. So, he feels exhausted and hurt at the end of visits, and talks about how much he doesn’t want to spend time with them. Conversation is stilted and his Dad shares abusive parenting anecdotes as if everything was OK. And then he’ll say yes to another multiday overnight visit. I know this is my partner’s relationship to manage, but I really don’t know how to support him as we navigate this new phase of his relationship with his parents. If they were treating my daughter similarly, I’d have no problem putting my foot down, but so far they have been loving and attentive grandparents (phew!). The awkwardness and passive aggressive behavior are exhausting for me too. Is this a wait and see situation? Do I just keep having an open ear and hope it resolves?

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—Unsure of Grandparents

Dear Unsure,

Your husband and his parents are trying to leapfrog over their painful past and fast-forward straight to a happy, easy grandparent-dom, and for obvious reasons, that’s not going well. The problems are theirs to solve, but they affect you. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do except make it clear to your husband that these multiday visits that leave him emotionally spent are hard on both of you, and that he needs to find a way to begin to change that. Maybe he’s ready to talk to his parents openly about how their parenting affected him, inaugurating a new chapter in their relationship, or maybe what he needs is space to heal without being reminded of the past. Either way, the current situation is not working.

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Especially as you head into the challenge of parenting two young kids, you need to create a solid framework for your own emotional well-being as parents and adults. It sounds like you have supported your husband’s growth and had an open ear as he has struggled to process the way he was parented. Going forward, maybe he will also be willing to do more of that work with a support group or a therapist (assuming he doesn’t already have one), so that you are not solely responsible for supporting his mental health, in addition to your other caretaking responsibilities. This stuff is hard to navigate as a family, but he’s a grown-up and is ultimately the one who needs to make choices about his adult relationship with his parents.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am an avid reader of all the Slate advice columns, and generally find myself in agreement with most of the responses. However, I have noticed a recent trend in the answers given to questions regarding COVID vaccination refusal and family/friend relationships. Overwhelmingly, the responses are to end, temporarily or permanently, relationships with people who refuse to be vaccinated. This is, I think, an extreme overreaction, and is most likely not in the best interest of anyone involved.

For some context, I have a doctorate in a medical field and have family members who have and have not been vaccinated, all of whom I see regularly. Myself and my spouse got our vaccines as soon as we were eligible, and we have a young daughter who is still ineligible. Thankfully, children and infants, the only demographic not currently able to be vaccinated, are at very low risk for serious illness. Everyone else can and should get the vaccine, and is therefore safe from serious illness or death. Are there exceptions? Sure. Everything in life has exceptions. We cannot live in a zero-risk society.

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Unfortunately, though, your focus on the risks of COVID overlooks an additional serious risk: The pandemic has destroyed or weakened many people’s social support systems and led to a massive mental health crisis. I myself have lost many friends due to the prolonged separation and trauma of this ongoing event. Advising people to end or jeopardize their remaining relationships to potentially stave off a small risk of minor illness is frankly bad advice. Now more than ever we need to reaffirm our social support systems and be thankful for those relationships which remain. Although I am left-leaning politically, I find it appalling that vaccines have become politicized by the right and the left, and your columns’ ill-given advice to blow up people’s support networks over vaccine refusal is exactly that—an unnecessary politicization which is designed to punish those who refuse the vaccine or keep company with refusers. Please recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health and stop sowing divisiveness around this issue.

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—Frustrated and Flummoxed

Dear Frustrated,

This is tricky territory to navigate, and while I can’t speak on behalf of every single one of my advice-columnist colleagues, I’m willing to own up to having navigated this issue imperfectly in the past. I certainly agree with you that mental health and physical health are equally important; in fact, I believe they are one and the same. But where we might diverge, Frustrated, is that I don’t think I’m sowing divisiveness when I give people permission to avoid their unvaccinated friends and family members. It’s not in the best interest of anyone’s mental health to wish this issue away or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

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You and I both understand that support networks are important, especially when it comes to friends and relatives who help provide child care. Parents aren’t meant to go it alone, and the cost of quality care is prohibitive for many U.S. families. In general, and especially when this issue informs a parent’s decision about socializing with unvaccinated people, my advice is informed by the principle of harm management. It’s incredibly difficult to forgo family help, but it might also be psychologically taxing for the new mother of an infant to leave that child in the care of someone who has made the decision to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19. We now know that COVID-19 poses a very small risk to children, it’s true. But would a person who is willing to ignore the risks their choices, writ large, impose on society—whose values are informed by far-right conspiracy theories—be a good caretaker in other ways? Is that person likely to get a flu shot, or a DTaP booster? That all enters the calculus, and while I’m not able to tell anyone what the exact right answer is in a given situation, I want parents to make choices that keep them safer, both physically and psychologically.

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The exception to this is when friends and family members are not willing to get the vaccine because they come from a community that experiences medical racism. It’s on all of us to meet people where they are and open dialogues about the vaccine that are grounded in mutual respect and openness, and I continue to recommend this how-to guide for people who think they have a shot at changing someone’s mind.

But when vaccine-avoidant people’s minds seem to be firmly made up, I am going to continue to give the advice that it’s OK to back away from those relationships. Refusing a proven-safe vaccine isn’t a choice that only affects the person who makes it; it has repercussions for medically vulnerable people and for the medical personnel who must care for those who become very sick. When a friend or family member has made a morally indefensible choice, it’s not always clear whether our obligation is to support them, cut ties, or to find some middle path. I trust my readers to determine which of those courses is right for them, and I think all of them are valid responses.

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—Emily

More Advice From Slate

My 5-year-old son recently had a play date at the house of a kindergarten friend of his. When my wife picked him up, the friend’s mother explained that the two boys had gotten dirty playing in the sprinkler, and so she had given him a bath. My jaw dropped when I found out. I quizzed my son and apparently no other adults were present, no cameras were seen, and she did not touch his privates. He had fun and did not seem bothered by the bath. Nevertheless, I am upset that a stranger would strip my child and bathe him without first checking with us. My wife thinks that this can be explained as a cultural difference as the friend’s parents are immigrants, and that the mother was trying to be respectful. I want to put the kibosh on the relationship. What would you suggest?

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