How to Support a Teen with ADHD Who Is Questioning Their Gender
How can parents support an adolescent with ADHD who is questioning their gender? Does ADHD play a role? Read on for helpful parenting strategies and resources for families parenting gender-diverse children.
Q: “My 15-year-old daughter, who has ADHD, told me the other day that she doesn’t want to live as a girl anymore. She wants to explore living as a boy. She has been struggling in school lately, and she attributes it to her identity questions. How can I help her with this discovery?”
When a child or teen reveals that they are questioning their gender identity, it’s a big deal for both of you. This isn’t something that should be taken lightly. It took courage for your daughter to share this with you, and, if she’s like other kids I know who are questioning their gender, it’s something she’s been contemplating for a while. (I’m using “she/her” since you do, too. If your teen asks you switch to male pronouns, I encourage you to do so.)
If you meet her where she is, keep the lines of communication open, and give her a wide field to explore gender without expectations for consistency, she will look back and realize how lucky she is to feel the love you have for her.
How to Support a Teen Questioning Gender
1. Consider Your Response Carefully
The first order of business is to think deeply about your response, because this will set the tone for your whole family’s response. Once parents learn they are expecting, they wonder whether their child will be a girl or a boy, what they will look like, and how they will act. These early fantasies form what’s called “gender normative expectations,” and these are both conscious and unconscious.
When a child questions their gender identity, there is often a major shift in parental compassion, based on how these gender ideas are now upset. It’s critical that you examine your feelings about this major shift apart from her, preferably with an experienced therapist. Teens with ADHD pick up on anything that indicates rejection in words, facial expressions, and body language.
2. Know That Change Takes Time
Gender transitioning takes time, and, for kids who struggle with impulse control, this is especially frustrating. Taylor, a 19-year-old transgender client of mine, recently told me: “It’s frustrating because I’m impatient. I want to change everything about myself to be female and know how to live that way, and I can’t yet.”
In fact, to receive appropriate medical treatment, medical providers often require that a transitioning person has been in therapy with a gender specialist for a year and has a letter of support about moving forward with hormones and/or surgery. There are many issues to address: legalizing a new name, exploring clothing and appearance options, finding therapy and support groups, and considering medical treatment. Figuring out and implementing all these steps seems impossible to the Now/Not Now brains of those with ADHD. You and your child must work together to map out a realistic timeline.
Getting comfortable with the pace of change serves everybody in the family, especially your teen. Her tendency will be to move as quickly as possible, but this won’t give her or you enough space to adjust and adapt. Children with ADHD often struggle with emotional regulation, organization, planning, prioritizing, time management, and focus. These executive functioning challenges intensify when a teen is questioning their gender identity. Feelings can overwhelm coping skills, so your daughter probably will be more reactive or emotional as she tries to understand what’s going on. Keep an eye out for isolation, self-harming behaviors, and low self-worth, and make sure she has a therapist or at least a support group to help her explore her feelings.
3. Hear Your Child
What your daughter needs most from you is compassion, acknowledgment, and conversation. Helping her on this journey gives her the reassurance she needs for self-acceptance. Here are steps to assist her on this journey:
- Keep things in perspective. You’ll need to set boundaries regarding when and where to talk about gender transitioning and all that goes with it. While issues related to gender are important, they are not the only aspect of your child’s life. It’s important to keep to daily routines to reduce stress and nurture other aspects of your lives.
- Discuss language. Words matter. Ask about your teen’s chosen name and pronouns. You’ll stumble with this. Discuss how you can make changes without feeling like you are walking on eggshells. Ask her to give you a chance to correct yourself before she jumps in.
- Set the tone for siblings. The way you interact with your teen will influence the way their siblings do. Your other children may help you with adjusting to the gender questioning process. Children of Generation Z are more accepting of gender fluidity than adults.
- Secure the support everyone needs. This is not a time for Do-It-Yourself parenting. When you feel unsure about what to do or say, remember that many other families have gone through this. Find online resources, parenting groups, and/or experienced therapists to help you, your teen, and your family in this transition.
Gender Questioning and Transitioning: More Resources
- The Gender-Creative Child (#CommissionsEarned) by Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D.
- Trans Kids and Teens: Pride, Joy, and Families in Transition (#CommissionsEarned) by Elijah Nealy, Ph.D.
- Families in Transition: Parenting Gender-Diverse Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults (#CommissionsEarned) edited by Arlene Lev and Andrew Gottlieb
- Webinar and Podcast: How to Support a Child, Teen, or Young Adult with ADHD as They Explore Gender
- Read: Q: My Teen is Bottling Up His Emotions. How Can I Encourage Him to Share Them?
- Read: True Grit: Turning Your Teen Into a Trooper
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