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January 26, 2021

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 24

My Daughter Is Questioning Her Gender. What Do I Do?

Episode 24

A single mom writes in feeling worried because her daughter is questioning her gender. Dr. Lisa explains what we understand about gender identity and sexual orientation, and offers advice on what to do when you are at an impasse with your child. Parents often feel they need to drive the bus on getting to a desired outcome, but that’s not usually the best approach. Lisa and Reena talk about how to think with your child about complex and delicate topics, and Lisa explains what teenagers really respect in adults. She also discusses research she uncovered about the parent-child relationship while writing Untangled that might surprise you. Lisa’s 10/7/20 book review in The New York Times: ‘Tomboy’ Looks at Gender Roles, and Role-Playing, Through the Ages

January 26, 2021 | 27 min

Transcript | My Daughter Is Questioning Her Gender. What Do I Do?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 24: My Daughter is Questioning Her Gender. What do I do?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: My brother whose daughter is in kindergarten and had her first playdate outside and didn’t know what to do because she hasn’t been in school yet and it was sort of this awkward stage, he was saying, but it made me think about the milestones that kids are missing in this pandemic. Of course they’ll make it up but you can’t help but think what your child is missing.


LISA: Yeah. Yeah I know, and playdates are hard under normal conditions and I can’t even picture, at least is in Texas where I presume they can be outside pretty comfortably.


REENA: That’s exactly right, and that’s what’s made all the difference and one of the letters that we got in our inbox today stood out about some the things that you might not be thinking about as a parent, but as a community, how can we help people and how can we help our kids in this one says: ‘Dear Lisa, about a month ago I found evidence that my 14-year-old daughter, who is a freshman in virtual high school, had changed her pronouns from she/her to they/them. I immediately mentioned it and she confirmed it and also said that she wants to wear a chest-binder. I’ve been plunged into sadness, anger and embarrassment. Simply talking to her has become a minefield. How can I possibly come back to the loving and connected space I thought we had just a few short weeks ago? As a single mom to an only child, I walk a tightrope where I’m fine financially, emotionally, unless something goes wrong. That my only child would bring this stress upon us has me so angry. I understand that she sees this quite differently. Please help.’ God there’s so much in this letter.


LISA: There’s so much.


REENA: What do you say to this mom?


LISA: Well, the first thing is, this is really complicated, and that’s important, I think is a position to begin with, and I think this mom is well aware of that, but this is something that you sometimes see the conversation get very, very polarized very quickly, where there’s the sense of like, this is not okay for this kid to do this, or we have to support this kid a hundred percent, you know, questioning is a terrible thing to do and I, you know, I woke up to this as a psychologist, like okay this is really complicated, and I guess the place that I would want to enter this is to set apart from each other outcome and process. So, here’s what I mean. This kiddo’s is14. I’ve seen a lot of different outcomes from the moment this mother is describing. So, for instance sometimes kiddos in this position do go on overtime to really deepenn the sense that they don’t like the gender they were assigned at birth, do feel that they identify much more closely with the opposite gender and continue to evolve into a position where they really outwardly change their gender and have always felt like that the new outward gender fits with their internal sense of gender. So, sometimes that’s the outcome. Okay that’s one. Another outcome that I see is that, you know, gender is fluid.


REENA: It’s interesting to hear you say gender is fluid. What do you mean by that? Like I’ve always known that I’m attracted to guys, right? But are you saying to me that that can change for me?


LISA: Well that’s interesting. So, there’s gender and there’s sexual orientation. So, those two things are also separate from each other, which is, I mean when I say this is complicated, it is super complicated. Okay, so let’s start there. So, one thing that we know is that who one sees oneself to be, which is what we really call gender, so I see myself to be female I happen to be biologically female, that’s my gender, lines up with might you know birth sex. You see yourself to be female, you happen to be biologically female, okay that’s your gender. Separate from that is who rings our bell, right? So, I, too, identify as straight, but that also, right, in terms of sexual orientation just like gender, it occurs on a continuum, and we’ll come back to that. Sexual orientation occurs on a continuum and it can be fluid. So, you’re attracted to men. I am attracted to men. I’m married to a man. Can I see a beautiful woman and feel something that’s like in the neighborhood of attraction? Yeah. Like I can. Like I can see a beautiful woman and be like, oh my gosh, she’s so pretty, I want to look at her. Do I want to kiss her? No it doesn’t go there for me, but I’m aware, and I think most people, there are very few people who are 100 percent straight and 100 percent gay, and also people move around in their lifetime. So, there are people who date women in college and then the merry men. Okay let’s say this is a woman, was she never gay? No, it’s all part of an evolving sexual identity. So, there’s so many moving parts, and I think that’s why it becomes so complicated.


REENA: Evolving sexual identity. It’s something that just stands out. So, what does it mean, Lisa, to question it, right? Because initially, I think how a lot of parents may react, she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, got to get her out of there.


LISA: Well that, okay so this exactly gets to the process versus outcome, right? So, the parent might be like, okay outcome, I don’t want it going down this road. I’m gonna try to get off this road. That is an outcome-driven approach for the parent, which in a situation like this is probably not going to go well, and the reason I say situation like this is the kid has all the power. At the end of the day the kid has all the power and certainly around gender identity the kid should have all the power, but if a parent decides they’re going to drive this, like I want it to go down this road and it’s a different road than my kid has said that he or she feels themselves to be on, now you’re walking into a huge power struggle, which is not where you want to be. So, let’s think about how to stay away from that, but I just want to come back on that idea of gender identity being fluid. When we talk about kids, you know, and the various outcomes I’ve seen, another outcome I’ve seen is kids who have a time, and maybe you know around 14, where they’re like maybe I’m more masculine than I realized, you know, and I want to take a walk around that neighborhood and then they’re in the neighborhood for awhile and then they’re like, okay now I feel done with that neighborhood and I’m into a different neighborhood of gender identity where actually feel more feminine than I thought it was.


REENA: That’s the problem is, you know, as a parent you’re thinking, child you are 14. You do not know what you want, right? You’re developing, no, and you want to shut it down.


LISA: Okay, but that’s so interesting, like that jump from, kiddo this outcome is unclear to I want to shut it down, right? Like that’s, actually it’s the first place we can hang out in and I think we can actually help this mom and her kiddo come back together, it’s the I want to shut it down that’s going to create the great wedge between this mom and this child. So, because the other possibility that I’ve seen is that in the search for identity, which if you think about like a time when kiddos are searching for identity, right? 13, 14 and especially in a virtual world where it’s so hard to feel connected, I have absolutely seen kids who their friendship group that starts to become available to them, the questioning of gender is very much a norm within that friendship group, and so then the child adopts that norm and then as friendships evolve and change that falls away, and the gender questions fall away, too, right? So, this could go so many different directions.


REENA: But, Lisa, in this letter she’s talking about chest-binding?


LISA: Yeah.


REENA: This daughter wants to bind her chest. I’m sure there are some children who might want to take hormones or, you know, do certain things, and as a parent, when you know they are still developing, and to commit to that, how do you wrestle that?


LISA: Well, it’s interesting because that would commit, right? So in some ways chest binding, you could change your mind tomorrow, and so that’s more straightforward in some ways for parents because, you know, it’s not a big commitment, whereas something like hormones could feel like a bigger commitment, but so these are all so thorny. So, if we go with the idea of you can’t really try the outcome. It gets really thorny really fast. You want to go to process, okay so what’s the process? Like how is a parent supposed to be in this moment to try to stay close to a kid and not alienate a child? And one of the things that I’ve really come to learn about teenagers is they really respect total honesty. Like, they really respect total transparency. So, on any super thorny, oh my gosh, I’m not sure what to do, I don’t want to alienate my kid moment in parenting, which happens a lot. My advice to people, to parents may be, try thinking out loud in front of your kid. Try thinking loud for them to hear what you yourself are struggling with.


REENA: So, what do you mean by that thinking out loud? Like, it’s okay to process it with your child as you go?


LISA: I think so. I think so. So, if I imagine this mom, the kinds of things I could picture her saying might be something like, okay I feel really torn. Part of me doesn’t want to seem to be any less than supportive, right? Part of me wants to back you in anything and in no way seem to be diminishing or doubting, especially around something as precious as one’s gender identity. The other part of me just found out about this and is a little bit surprised, and maybe you’ve been thinking about this for a while but it’s really new to me and as your mom, like your gender is not a minor issue in my universe, and like I need a minute, right? Or the parent could say, look I will support you all the way wherever this process takes you. That is true, and side by side with that I know and I suspect you kiddo know, that to be unconventional and one’s gender in today’s society still is going to make your life harder, is potentially very dangerous for you, right? People can use, you know, lethal force against people who are transgender, and as someone who loves you down to the marrow, it’s pretty unsettling for me to get this news that you’re thinking in this direction because your security and safety in the world means more to me than anything. So, don’t mistake my hesitation, doubt, worry for not validating you. It’s me thinking out loud or me being in touch with the meaning of what you’re saying.


REENA: That’s interesting. So, maybe that, I just felt this mom when she says, how do I go back to just four weeks ago where we have that warmth? I want to go back  to that place. But you’re saying to me sometimes processing it with them and letting them know that you’re openly processing it can help?


LISA: I think it can and I also think, you know, 14-year-olds are pretty sophisticated thinkers usually or they are becoming very sophisticated thinkers. So, they can usually step up to this idea of like, look kiddo, like this is complicated, and I’m not going to simplify it. What’s hard with kids sometimes, especially on the younger side of adolescence, is they do want to oversimplify it. They’re like either you’re with me or against me, you know, I have declared this. You are being unsupportive, and I think where parents don’t want to go is to fall into that kid’s are you on my team, are you not on my team? Right? Because it’s not like that. It’s like, well of course I’m on your team but like, kiddo, this is big, and another thing that we can say in these moments, and this expense to all sorts of dilemmas in parenting, is we can say, well wouldn’t be weird if I were like, okay whatever, that’s cool. You want to go by he? Well what do you want for lunch?




LISA: Wouldn’t it be weird if I didn’t sit with this and think about it, and like try to weigh the implications?


REENA: Yeah. Do you feel that kids, by kids, I mean, you know, like teens right now, see this in an easier way than adults do? Like I feel like we grapple with this in a much harder way.


LISA: I think that’s right. I think that’s right, and one of the words that caught my ear in the letter was the mom feeling embarrassed.


REENA: Embarrassed. Yes.


LISA: Embarrassed about this, and when I heard that I thought, okay but this is really interesting because what I have noted is there’s a big divide generationally between how parents see unconventional gender and how kids see it. Kids, it’s kind of actually amazing to me how much of a distinction there is, but kids are way more relaxed about all this than parents are, even parents who see themselves to be very liberal and progressive. So on both gender identity and sexual orientation kids I know in the younger generation they’re like, yeah I don’t know, like, you know, this kiddo’s going by they/them like okay. They move on quite quickly. Or, I love this, one of my really dear friends, her very straight son who is a college athlete, she said to me in sort of of having a conversation about like how different the younger generations take on all of these things is than sometimes the parents generation, she said, so, it wasn’t until like several months in to rooming with his freshman roommate that my son happened to mention that his roommate was gay. She said it was such a non-issue for him and she said, not that we care either, but just like that just would have been a thing in college, and it’s just not a thing for kids today in the same way. So, one, hopefully maybe point of ease for this mother, is to know that, all right you may have your own worries about how this is going to play at thanksgiving with your relatives, and so, you know, we have to think that through perhaps, but in terms of worrying that your, I’ll call her your daughter, is somehow, you know, harming herself socially or doing, you know, pigeon-holing herself into a position she cannot possibly get out of actually I wouldn’t worry about that so much. That is less of an issue for kids.


REENA: Because I feel like that was like one of the biggest issues in this. I want to ask you, though, you know, it’s amazing like the point that we’re at because, you know, President Biden has nominated Dr. Rachel Levine to be Assistant Secretary of Health, who is openly transgender and will be one of the first openly transgender federal officials to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. You’re seeing more examples, I think, which is really important, but I want to step back for a second actually talk about sexual orientation. What if your child comes out and says, or you might think, potentially, your child is gay, what should you do?


LISA: That’s also, I mean I love these questions because they’re so hard, so, here’s what I’ve done as a parent. I’ve actually worked with the premise that I don’t know who my daughters are going to love, and I’ve worked with that premise for a really long time, and I think in part just because of the work I do I am and I think about these things in terms of where I’ve seen them go awry, and so one thing I’ve done as parent from the earliest days, I don’t know do you ever do this with your kids where like you talk about the future marriages or their weddings?




LISA: You know how sometimes kids do that, they’re like, well I get married we’re gonna have 14 dogs, right?


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And so when those conversations come up I’ve always said, oh well maybe your spouse is going to have some opinion on this. Or maybe your partner’s going to have a point of view.


REENA: Yeah. I say partner.


LISA: So I don’t ever say husband and I’ve never like said to them, do you notice how I don’t say husband? I mean just sort of like, you know, to say maybe maybe the person you’re with is going to have some ideas about this too because I’m so aware of kids I’ve cared for my practice who are gay, who have known themselves to be gay, and for whom coming out to the parents was made harder by the presumption of heterosexuality, which is an overriding presumption in our culture, and so that’s the place to start. I guess, then anytime if you think about that moment of a kid coming out to parents, right? There’s like 400 contextual variables at work. So, one is you know how the parents themselves feel about homosexuality, you know, and there’s a diverse array on that. Another is how surprised the parents are. Because there are plenty of parents who are like, we know.


REENA: Right.


LISA: They’re like, we’ve known for a really long time versus parents who are like, oh, okay, and and I guess, again, you can’t drive that outcome. You cannot drive that outcome as a parent. Don’t try to drive that outcome. Go to process. Go to process, and by go to process, to the degree that you’re conflicted, lay it on the table. Lay it on the table. Just say, no we’ve known for a long time, or wow we’re kind of surprised, or okay and we’ll support you all the way, and wow um we love you so much my worry that this is a complexity and a wrinkle that is coming in your life for has maybe been part of your life for a long time and like we’re here to support you, but we’re aware that this is something that is not altogether straightforward in our country and not altogether easy in our country, you know, I mean just to lay it out and lay it out, but move out of the position of a parent of like, I need to know how this is supposed to come out and I need to get it there.


REENA: Which is where we all want to go instantly. Like you want it resolved, but I’m want to ask you, what if you don’t know. What if you just have no clue whether your child is gay or straight? How do you play it that way?


LISA: So the kid has come out but you’re like and eh I’m not so sure?


REENA: Or what if they haven’t come out? You have your doubts but you want to be supportive, what can parents do when you’re just unsure? Hey this child could be gay or could be straight, I don’t know.


LISA: Love them like crazy. I just think it’s more about showing them what love should look like right? And so whoever they end up loving or whoever they end up choosing, just use your parent-child relationship to show them that love is respectful and decent and incredibly kind and the conflict is handled in a really healthy way and if they happen to land on having love with someone who’s the same sex or the opposite sex like that’s really what you want, right? Is that  they understand how relationships work, but there an interesting thing, like I would just aim to be close to a kiddo and lay out your thinking and your conflict, you know, in a really earnest and honest way, and here’s something that’s really interesting. When I was researching ‘Untangled’ actually a long time ago I came across this research finding that really stayed with me around kids coming out to their parents, and it sometimes being quite a bit harder when the parent and child are very close because the child is that much more fearful of damaging the relationship.


REENA: Interesting.


LISA: Whereas the parent and child are already kind of distant or at odds there’s less at stake.


REENA: Wow. Interesting. Can I just say, Lisa, before we wrap it up, the other thing that stood out this letter, single mom. Single mom.


LISA: With an only child.


REENA: With an only child. What’s your advice to folks who are parenting alone? Both dads and moms because we got a lot of dads that also listen to this podcast. We never want you guys to feel isolated. We’re grateful for you as well. wWhat do you say to single parents, especially this pandemic?


LISA: Oh my lord. Okay, so first of all there should be medals for being a single parent.




LISA: And especially for being a single parent of a teenager because when I work clinically, when I think in terms of like one of the most excruciating scenarios I’ve seen, to be the single parent of a kid who’s mad at you or a kid you’re at odds with, like this mom and this kiddo are, it is brutal. You are in the house together. That kid is snarky or angry or dark with you, and you have no one who you can go into your bedroom and be like, it’s okay. It’s okay I’ve got you. It is so hard, and sometimes, you know , and so even the only child thing, like sometimes the other kid is still liking you and so you can take over in that. Okay, so what do I say. So, if you are a single parent we love you and we are sending our love and support your way, and you deserve all the medals in the world. If you know a single parent, when did you call them lately and say how are you? And do you need any pending backup or just someone to tell you you’re great? And then tell them how awesome their kid is. Tell the how awesome their kid is because that’s the other thing that’s really fun sometimes about having a partner is he could like, oh my god the kids are being really awesome right now and you can share that and so I think if you’re like, oh I’ve got to tell you I saw your your son on the playground the other day a kiddo fell down and everybody else ran away and your son was the kid who stopped and asked him if he was all right, I was blown away by what your kid did. I mean things like that, do that. Don’t hold that back.


REENA: It’s so important to say that and to hear that. We all love to hear that, right? When it’s genuine and every episode I learn so much from you as your friend and co-host.


LISA: Well, I am so blown away by the intimacy of the questions we are being I’m going ot say blessed with.


REENA: That’s a great word.


LISA: I am just so honored that we have parents trusting us with their hearts.


REENA: Which is a big step to take. A very big step.


LISA: Yeah, and so thank you parents.


REENA: You know you mentioned ‘Untangled’ and so for this week we’re all about throwing resources at parents. We’re going to throw an amazing resource, our book giveaway, is ‘Untangled.’


LISA: Should we do it? Should we give away ‘Untangled’?


REENA: Let’s give away your book. I give it to people before you and I even started podcast because it is like a Bible. Everybody should read it.


LISA: So, ‘Untangled’ came out in 2016, which now feels like a lifetime ago, and the subtitle is “guiding teenage girls through the seven transitions into adulthood” but here’s what I hear all the time, eighty percent applies to boys.


REENA: True.


LISA: And what I do in that book is I lay out the developmental passages of being a teenager, and actually in ‘Untangled’ I spend time on a story of a family whose daughter was coming out to them and they were struggling with how to think it through.


REENA: Oh wow, right.


LISA: So, I’ll do three signed copies.  I’ll sign them and mail them. How do we do the giveaway, Reena?


REENA: So, all you have to do is follow us on Instagram or Facebook at asklisapodcast, tag a friend, leave a comment on Instagram or Facebook or both, and you can enter as many times as you like and as many people as you want, but you have to be a U.S. resident for now, but even if you aren’t leave us a post if you’re from another country because we might have to open it up internationally at some point,  and then we’ll let you know on Instagram and Facebook who the winners are, and it’ll be open until our next podcast comes out, which is the following Tuesday.


LISA: All right.


REENA: So, what do you have for us for parenting to go?


LISA: So, I’m going to quote a writer named Lisa Selin Davis who wrote a book called Tomboy that I recently reviewed for The New York Times Book Review and it’s just about gender and girls and how we’ve thought about it both historically and also currently and she said something in the book I just thought was so right on. She said the only way to do gender wrong is to tell someone else they’re doing gender wrong, and I thought well that just is exactly down to the nub of it, so I want to say as we think it through his parents, and watch your kids figure out what it means to do gender, and as kids come home to us and talk about other kids figuring out what it means to do gender, I think let’s just steer clear of telling someone they’re doing it wrong.


REENA: Great advice. Such great advice. Thanks so much, Lisa.


LISA: See you next week.


REENA: I’ll see you next week.



The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.