Gender Identity Crisis? 10 Tips for Talking to Your Child

Last summer, on behalf of the National Catholic Register, I spent time talking to leading Catholic voices on gender-identity discordance with lessons on how to deal with the issue in your family.

“If you have just learned that your son or daughter identifies as LGBTQ+, you are not alone,” said the organizers of the Courage and EnCourage international conference that was held here on the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

Here are the top pieces of advice from a panel of the organization’s experts, with added wisdom from Pope Francis on gender identity issues.

1: It’s good to be a man. It’s good to be a woman. So say so!

Pope Francis has said that respecting the difference between men and women enriches children. “What great richness this diversity is; a diversity which becomes complementary,” he said. “Children mature seeing their father and mother like this; their identity matures being confronted with the love their father and mother have, confronted with this difference.”

Positive prevention is the first job of Catholic families, Father Philip Bochanski, the executive director of Courage, said.

“The culture has this idea that says you can be the sex that you’re not, primarily because we don’t understand what’s good about being the sex that you are,” he said. “Speak boldly about what it means to be a man and why it’s good to be a woman and the way the sexes are good for each other.”

2: Be devoted to Joseph and Mary, models of masculinity and femininity.

The theme of last year’s conference was “St. Joseph: Model of Courageous Love,” following Pope Francis’s lead in declaring a Year of St. Joseph. Bishop Emeritus John LeVoir of New Ulm, Minnesota — one of four bishops at the conference — pointed out, “The bond between Joseph and Mary is what Our Lord saw. This is the formation he experienced. We can really appreciate that formation.”

Greg Bottaro expanded on the theme. “We all need Jesus,” the director of the CatholicPsych Institute told attendees, “and we all need Jesus’ mom and dad.”

The theme connected with conference-goers. “I go to the Courage conference each year for spiritual renewal and family reunion,” said Garrett (last name withheld), a member of the Washington, D.C., Courage chapter. “But at this year’s conference I also came to know my spiritual father, St. Joseph, better.”

 3: Speak the truth in love.

But what are a mom and dad to do when a child flirts with transgenderism? “The starting point is what St. Paul said to the Ephesians: Speak the truth in love,” said Father Bochanski.

“You don’t beat someone over the head with the truth,” he said. “Don’t become deliberately provocative or offensive. Keep communication open in the family, which includes not just communication with the loved one who is experiencing gender-identity discordance, but with the rest of the family.”

4: Your words will matter, either way.

Pope Francis calls gender theory ” a ‘global war’ against the family.” 

“What family says is crucially important,” said Deacon Patrick Lappert, M.D., Courage’s chaplain and a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Decatur, Alabama.

With younger children, “if you show love while insisting on the truth, over 80% of them will” rediscover their gender of origin. If you affirm their thoughts that they have to radically change their bodies to be happy, “100% of them will persist,” he said.

5: Be aware of who else your child is hearing.

Pope Francis has warned repeatedly about aggressive attempts to promote gender ideology, saying, “This is ideological colonization. … They colonize the people with an idea which changes, or means to change, a mentality or a structure,” in the same way totalitarian regimes of the 20th century did.

Mary Rice Hasson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center founded the Person and Identity Project in Washington, D.C., to help parents cope with just these kinds of questions.

Hasson stressed that when speaking with a young son or daughter with gender-identity discordance, you need to be aware of who has the child’s ear on this topic. Sometimes it’s a counselor, sometimes it’s a teacher, but the child is likely being coached.

“The kid has been given this path that is supposed to be the route to their happiness,” she said. “The kids are being taught, and they will feel permission to say, ‘My parents are transphobic.’ One thing that is important for parents to do is to affirm for the child that you love them.”

6: De-escalate the urgency. Promote calm and patience.

“Our children, our youth who begin to hear these strange ideas, these ideological colonizations that poison the soul and the family: one must act against this,” Pope Francis told families.

Parents should expect an alarming and heavy-handed response from the voices promoting transgenderism, said the panel. “Do you want a live son or do you want a dead daughter?” is the kind of message sent to parents.

Often, parents feel they need to respond with the same intensity. Don’t, said Hasson.

“Take the urgency out of the conversation. Say, ‘Let’s step back,’” she said. “Resist the plan they are being given. It’s like a script that many of these kids have. To break that dynamic, the parents who have been successful have said, ‘Wait a minute.’”

7: Save the relationship.

Pope Francis has stressed that all the same, when a son or daughter expresses identity issues, “We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter.”

Deacon Lappert explained, “What you say to parents and loved ones has a lot to do with the age of the person you are talking to.”

“When the kid comes out in late adolescence and early adulthood,” the strategy is different, he explained. For instance, it may not be as necessary to point out what you believe. “Presumably, they know already. At that point, put all that aside and forge the relationship with them,” he said. “Research shows that when they maintain that relationship with their parents, their sexual acting out decreases.”

 8: Know the science.

Crux News reports that many pediatricians back Pope Francis on gender theory. A great place to take the conversation is to talk about physical health, the panel said. That will take some effort in finding a pediatrician you can trust.

Deacon Lappert added that, for any age, it is important to know the science.

“They will talk about having the science behind them, but what they have is the smallest level of scientific affirmation,” he said. “The world literature is showing the opposite. Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm has abandoned puberty blockers,” for instance, he said, along with Finland, Holland and the High Court in London.

9: Have compassion on their broken heart.

“Don’t be scared, in these cases,” Pope Francis has said. “Yes, there is pain. A lot. But think of the Lord, think about how Joseph solved the problems and ask Joseph to help you. Never condemn a child. … Joseph prayed, worked, and loved — three beautiful things for parents: to pray, to work, and to love.”

What is important is to address not just the symptoms — the gender-identity discordance — but the wound behind it, Hasson said.

Transgenderism is “socially contagious to particular kids because they are vulnerable and have preexisting issues. They have inferiority issues already,” she said, citing a study showing that young people with gender dysphoria have experienced high rates of emotional trauma and sexual or physical abuse from someone in their life, at home or away.

For these hurting individuals, the “LGBTQ” community offers a new chapter in a person’s life.

“It’s not just a middle-school fad, though there is some of that,” Hasson said. “It’s something that really deeply appeals to a wounded heart — ‘I can have a future. I can get affirmation.’”

10: Show them a future of hope through community and service.

For a fulfilled life, “With these two things you have the action plan: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25,” Pope Francis tells young people. “You do not need anything else.”

“People experience a radical isolation living in the world in which we live,” Deacon Lappert said. “There is this deep desire for community. The transgender treatment offers hope. We tell them that we are going to solve the pain of being socially isolated.” But then the whole program unfolds, with puberty blockers, then top surgery and then face alteration. “But within about five to seven years, the suicide rate is back at 40%, 19 times the rate of the world population.”

It all comes back to the example of saints such as St. Joseph, said Father Bochanski. Joseph found happiness not by seeking his personal desires, but by serving Jesus and Mary.

“We become who we are only when we give ourselves away,” he said. “It’s the gift of self that shows us who we really are.”

In our work with confirmation students, my wife and I promote the Works of Mercy suggestions for teens in Father Michael Gaitley’s book You Did It To Me. We also call in peers to invite them to youth opportunities in town that might fit their tastes to promote community life.

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, The Fatima Family Handbook and What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and their nine children.