For the past year, a certain idea has been percolating in my head: There really needs to be a guidebook for the rapidly expanding numbers of parents whose adolescent or preadolescent child suddenly, and out of the blue, announces that they are transgender. I was aware that there already was good material out there distinguishing the extremely rare psychiatric condition of gender dysphoria from the social tidal wave of young people adopting a trans identity, primarily as a way of finding belonging (see Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier and When Harry Became Sally by Ryan T. Anderson). But as informative as these books are, they don’t contain the detailed recommendations that a parent desperately needs to weather the frustrations and confusions of a transgender tsunami hitting his or her family.
I knew that writing such a guidebook for parents would be a large undertaking, one that I did not see how I could make time for. In order to provide at least some help to parents, I wrote the article Gender Dysphoria: The Facts versus the Myths, which contained some advice for parents, and posted it on this blog. However, I knew parents needed so much more help than my article provided. Thus, I was delighted to discover the book Desist, Detrans and Detox: Getting Your Child Out of the Gender Cult by Maria Keffler. This book, written with sensitivity, wisdom, and courage, basically lays out the recommendations that I would have given.
Maria Keffler, MSEd is trained in educational psychology, and her book is well-informed and filled with helpful psychological insights and techniques. The book does a particularly good job at emphasizing the vital importance of maintaining a warm relationship with the child and keeping lines of communication open. This can be done without bowing to or pretending to bow to the gender ideology rules. A parent can openly state that there is much in the transgender-embracing camp that appears unhealthy, unwise, and illogical to him or her. But, Keffler stresses, conversations with the child about this topic will not be helpful if the child does not feel ongoing love and support from the parent.
Keffler does more than generalize about the need to have a loving and supportive relationship with the transgender-identifying child. She gives specific techniques to maintain that relationship. These techniques include:
>Keep the conversation going about difficult topics by asking questions rather than lecturing.
>Don’t complain about or belittle the child.
>Use “I” statements (e.g., “I am having a hard time with this,” rather than “You are making things so difficult.”)
>Encourage the child to talk about their relationship with you. Avoid being defensive. Be aware of your tone of voice, and endeavor to keep it positive. It’s OK and sometimes very helpful for the parent to acknowledge mistakes made and apologize.
>Make yourself available to talk when the child wants to, rather than forcing conversations based on your schedule.
>Express love for your child (the more the better), and warmly express appreciation for the good they do and the positive qualities they have.
>Try not to interrupt your child. If the child keeps talking over you, you can calmly say, “I listened to you when you were talking. Please now extend me that same courtesy.”
Keffler’s approach is based on the understanding that proper parenting includes love and limits. She acknowledges that as a preteen moves into adolescence, the parent has less and less ability to actually control what they do, especially outside of the home. (Of course, this is even more profoundly true when the young person enters adulthood.) Nonetheless, Keffler emphasizes that, at every stage, the parent can evaluate how they can establish healthy limits. For younger children, this can be as simple as blocking access to certain unhealthy social influences and refusing to permit piercings. For adolescents, it could involve filtering and supervising internet use and refusing to authorize puberty-blocking medications or cross-sex hormones. For an adult child, the limits could take the form of withholding approval of certain choices, such as quickly moving into a medical transition, rather than taking one’s time to patiently examine the issue with a therapist.
Keffler stresses that the limits parents apply must be adjusted to the specifics of the child’s development, history, and situation. Parents can and often should make compromises (e.g., calling the child by a non-gendered nickname rather than their gendered preferred name). Further, it is also important to understand that young children naturally experiment with cross-gender play, and there is no need for the parent to worry about this or take it seriously. (The best parental response to such games is often to just show curiosity about them and/or to join in with them.)
Another important point that the book makes is that parents impact their child’s choices not only by setting limits but also by creating certain environments for their child. The parent can develop an awareness of who is a positive or negative influence in the child’s life and can methodically facilitate the child being in more positive/healthy social environments rather than ones that promote a gender ideology. This does not have to mean forbidding a child to go to certain places. It could be simply encouraging positive role models (extended family/friends) to get more involved in a child’s life and helping to steer the child into settings with more traditional views. Keffler provides a practical and methodical approach to guiding children, without compulsion, into more healthy settings.
I also really appreciated the chapter discussing the impact of a transgender-identifying child on the other children in the family. Transgender identification can be highly confusing to other siblings. During the stress and confusion of responding to a child’s transgender identification, the parents need to remember to reach out to the other children and provide explanations and a place to address these children’s questions and concerns. This awareness of the needs of the other children is vital for the family to navigate this crisis in a manner that supports the health of the overall family. The health of the marriage must also be tended to, and parents need to remember to make time for each other to connect and provide the mutual support that they need now more than ever.
If I had written this book, there would be only two things that I would have discussed a little differently. One relates to the role of logic in discussing transgender ideology with the child. The other involves use of what Keffler calls “motivation theory” (basically, use of reward and punishment to shape the child’s behavior).
In regard to logic, Keffler stresses early in the book that conversations about the illogic of gender ideology need to occur with the child to deprogram him or her. I acknowledge that the child may need to be challenged, and I also appreciate that Keffler gives instructions on a way to do this that is gradual and compassionate, and avoids overwhelming the parent or the child. Nonetheless, after over twenty years of being a psychologist and fifty-nine years on this earth, it is my observation that people rarely act based on pure logic. What is much more common is that people experience emotional needs to act in a certain way and then invent logic to support that behavior. That being the case, I would primarily emphasize rebuilding connections with the hurting heart of your child and making that your primary focus. Ultimately, the parent is most likely to help the child come out of their indoctrination with a mix of time and love (and a little bit of logic) rather than by trusting logic to carry the weight.
As for use of reward and punishment, I urge parents to do their best to avoid making this into a power struggle. Regardless of how artful a parent is in using reward and mild punishment to shape a child’s behavior, things can quickly deteriorate if the child and/or parent sees this as a fight for control. Too many well-meaning behavioral programs have been put into place to shape a child’s behavior and have deteriorated into escalating punishments as the parent insists that his or her way will prevail. The parent must remember that one of the central tenets of gender ideology is that our society is filled with oppressive authority figures who dominate and damage the spirits of transgender-identifying young people. The parent should strive to not confirm this stereotype. Remember: This really is not about control of your child. It is about creating a space for your child to see a more three-dimensional view of their biological and psychological selves and the beautiful experiences and opportunities that their body, as it is, offers them.
To all parents who are struggling with a transgender child, I offer my encouragement and compassion. In her book, Keffler does this as well, and she offers a program to help navigate these stormy seas.