Adolescence is fraught with uncertainty and identity searching

Jesse Singal starts his piece in the Atlantic with Claire, age 14.

During the course of the evening I spent with Claire and her mother, Heather—these aren’t their real names—theater, guitar, and track tryouts all came up. We also discussed the fact that, until recently, she wasn’t certain she was a girl.

Sixth grade had been difficult for her. She’d struggled to make friends and experienced both anxiety and depression. “I didn’t have any self-confidence at all,” she told me. “I thought there was something wrong with me.” Claire, who was 12 at the time, also felt uncomfortable in her body in a way she couldn’t quite describe. She acknowledged that part of it had to do with puberty, but she felt it was more than the usual preteen woes. “At first, I started eating less,” she said, “but that didn’t really help.”

The thing is, though, how much did she, how much could she know about the usual preteen woes? Not that much, because of being twelve. When you’re twelve you don’t really understand that your experiences and feelings and woes are generic…at least I didn’t, and now that I’m not twelve I no longer think I’m Unique and Special, including uniquely dorky or wrong or weird or any of that.

Around this time, Claire started watching YouTube videos made by transgender young people. She was particularly fascinated by MilesChronicles, the channel of Miles McKenna, a charismatic 22-year-old. His 1 million subscribers have followed along as he came out as a trans boy, went on testosterone, got a double mastectomy, and transformed into a happy, healthy young man. Claire had discovered the videos by accident, or rather by algorithm: They’d showed up in her “recommended” stream. They gave a name to Claire’s discomfort. She began to wonder whether she was transgender, meaning her internal gender identity didn’t match the sex she had been assigned at birth. “Maybe the reason I’m uncomfortable with my body is I’m supposed to be a guy,” she thought at the time.

Except that there’s no such thing as one’s “internal gender identity.” That’s a made-up label, and it sows a lot of confusion.

So Claire thought she should transition.

Claire initially kept her feelings from her parents, researching steps she could take toward transitioning that wouldn’t require medical interventions, or her parents’ approval. She looked into ways to make her voice sound deeper and into binders to hide her breasts. But one day in August 2016, Mike asked her why she’d seemed so sad lately. She explained to him that she thought she was a boy.

This began what Heather recalls as a complicated time in her and her husband’s relationship with their daughter. They told Claire that they loved and supported her; they thanked her for telling them what she was feeling. But they stopped short of encouraging her to transition. “We let her completely explore this on her own,” Heather told me.

Good. Good that they stopped short. Singal says they’re both scientists, so maybe that helped them decide not to encourage transition. “Internal gender identity” is not a scientific term.

As Claire passed into her teen years, she continued to struggle with mental-health problems. Her parents found her a therapist, and while that therapist worked on Claire’s depression and anxiety—she was waking up several times a night to make sure her alarm clock was set correctly—she didn’t feel qualified to help her patient with gender dysphoria. The therapist referred the family to some nearby gender-identity clinics that offered transition services for young people.

Claire’s parents were wary of starting that process. Heather, who has a doctorate in pharmacology, had begun researching youth gender dysphoria for herself. She hoped to better understand why Claire was feeling this way and what she and Mike could do to help. Heather concluded that Claire met the clinical criteria for gender dysphoria in the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. Among other indications, her daughter clearly didn’t feel like a girl, clearly wanted a boy’s body, and was deeply distressed by these feelings. But Heather questioned whether these criteria, or much of the information she found online, told the whole story. “Psychologists know that adolescence is fraught with uncertainty and identity searching, and this isn’t even acknowledged,” she told me.

That. That’s all-important. Of course adolescence is fraught with uncertainty and identity searching, along with incomplete development (that prefrontal cortex that takes its own sweet time to mature, leading to a lot of car crashes and unintended pregnancies), so it’s a time for caution about irrevocable or difficult-to-revoke body modifications. Teenagers feel weird in all sorts of ways, and the feelings are not necessarily permanent.

Heather said most of the resources she found for parents of a gender-dysphoric child told her that if her daughter said she was trans, she was trans. If her daughter said she needed hormones, Heather’s responsibility was to help her get on hormones. The most important thing she could do was affirm her daughter, which Heather and Mike interpreted as meaning they should agree with her declarations that she was transgender. Even if they weren’t so certain.

What if that’s bad terrible stupid advice, hey? What makes people so confident that that’s true? Because of highly dogmatic trans activists on Twitter? Maybe they’re not actually the best people to consult.

Claire’s parents stalled, to Claire’s frustration.

Claire humored her parents, even as her frustration with them mounted. Eventually, though, something shifted. In a journal entry Claire wrote last November, she traced her realization that she wasn’t a boy to one key moment. Looking in the mirror at a time when she was trying to present in a very male way—at “my baggy, uncomfortable clothes; my damaged, short hair; and my depressed-looking face”—she found that “it didn’t make me feel any better. I was still miserable, and I still hated myself.” From there, her distress gradually began to lift. “It was kind of sudden when I thought: You know, maybe this isn’t the right answer—maybe it’s something else,” Claire told me. “But it took a while to actually set in that yes, I was definitely a girl.”

Claire believes that her feeling that she was a boy stemmed from rigid views of gender roles that she had internalized. “I think I really had it set in stone what a guy was supposed to be like and what a girl was supposed to be like. I thought that if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a girl, you were a guy, and if you didn’t follow the stereotypes of a guy, you were a girl.” She hadn’t seen herself in the other girls in her middle-school class, who were breaking into cliques and growing more gossipy. As she got a bit older, she found girls who shared her interests, and started to feel at home in her body.

In other words, It Gets Better. Kids who feel dorky and weird at 12 are likely to find their people at 15. Things can shake out.

Heather thinks that if she and Mike had heeded the information they found online, Claire would have started a physical transition and regretted it later. These days, Claire is a generally happy teenager whose mental-health issues have improved markedly. She still admires people, like Miles McKenna, who benefited from transitioning. But she’s come to realize that’s just not who she happens to be.

Should we feel sad that she missed out on the chance to be trans? I don’t think so.

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