A different take on affirmation

by Brie Jontry

 Brie Jontry is public spokesperson for 4thWaveNow and the mother of a teen who temporarily believed she was a trans boy. Brie can be found on Twitter at @bjontry.


We appear to be living in an age of heightened ideological dualism and false dichotomies. Nowhere is this more obvious than if you’re the parent of a gender-engrossed young person, and you’re desperate for objective information about how to best support your loved one. But parents who turn to the Internet to learn about the seemingly sudden distress that’s gripped their children are likely to find only one response: “affirmation.”

What does “affirmation” mean in this context? If you thought it meant affirming (as in acknowledging the reality of) a child’s distress and other assorted negative feelings surrounding their expected adherence to sex-rooted gender norms, you’d be mistaken. Increasingly, affirmation means confirming a child’s belief that there is something incongruent between their body and their mind and the belief that their body is afflicted by a kind of birth defect that only appears around puberty. To hear many trans advocates and certain clinicians tell it, the natural development of a sexed body is traumatic, dangerous, and possibly even deadly.

Like just about every other social and political issue currently being debated, the approach to helping kids uncomfortable in their born bodies could be drawn on a spectrum with a wide field of grey between the two opposing ends: blanket affirmation of born-in-the wrong-body rhetoric on one side, and wholesale invalidation of a young person’s feelings and beliefs on the other.

I want to encourage all those concerned with this issue to take a deep breath and try their hardest to assume positive intent on behalf of all parents struggling to help their children. Claims of “child abuse” from both sides against obviously caring parents need to stop. A little empathy will go a long way toward encouraging more productive and meaningful conversations. Most parents, regardless of where they stand on the affirm-or-not spectrum, want the same thing: healthy, actualized, contented children.

For my part, I want to widen the scope of what it means to offer “affirmation” and encourage those who are skeptical of medical interventions to embrace validating their children’s discomfort. At the same time, I want to encourage those researching and caring for dysphoric youth to recognize that a large percentage of parents are already doing that: affirming their children’s distress, fully in support of their gender atypicality, and also, when needed, seeking out specialized mental health care for underlying issues prior to agreeing to hormonal and surgical interventions.

When my now teen daughter was four years old, I happened upon a philosophy of parenting that at once sounded both ludicrous and wonderful. “Radical unschooling,” I read, was practiced by parenting according to principles, not rules, and by nourishing a rich relationship built on trust between parent and child. I decided to forgo punishments in favor of seeing my child’s behavior as communication, which at that age, was often grounded in an unmet need or frustration. I prioritized not only supporting her interests, no matter how odd (road kill), or silly (The Wiggles), or redundant (The Wiggles), but also tried my hardest to understand what was interesting about the things my daughter chose to pursue.

Unschooling is often misunderstood as being “child-led.” It isn’t. According to Pam Sorooshian, one of my parenting and unschooling mentors:

The term, “child-led learning,” does emphasize something very important – that the child is the learner! I couldn’t agree more. However, it also disregards the significant role played by the parent in helping and supporting and, yes, quite often taking the lead, in the investigation and exploration of the world that is unschooling.

So when my 11-year-old daughter revealed to me that she thought she was a boy inside, I approached the news from the framework of partnered exploration. I supported her by listening, by learning about her interest, by doing research she couldn’t do for herself, by talking to others and talking about all kinds of things with others while she was near, by finding specialists who could help, and also by asking:

Why…?

Where do you think that comes from?

What does that mean to you?

How else could this be different?

What can I do?

I had always (already) accepted my kind, curious, creative, quirky, stereotype-bending child. There was never a second when I considered not walking beside her as she struggled with feeling wrong in her developing body. As she sorted through trauma and grief and went through the stages of forming her unique identity, our parental support was critical to keeping her safe.

I told her I would love her no matter what and help her however I could and that I would always have her back. I told her I didn’t care who she loved, how she dressed, or what name she chose to use.

I told her I didn’t think she was really a boy but I understood she wanted to be one. I told her I wasn’t convinced there was enough evidence that hormonal interventions would serve her well long-term.

question markI asked her what boys could do that she couldn’t? Why being a boy would be better? I listened. I affirmed her distress, her confusion, and her desire as valid emotions. I empathized as much as I could. I helped her find ways to feel stronger, to BE stronger, to feel safer, more secure, and better able to manage discomfort and ambiguity. Because I had spent her childhood up to this point prioritizing our relationship and not my position of authority, she trusted me to help her get what she wanted, which was to feel better about herself and her place in the world. I was lucky in one way: My child was still young enough that we both had the luxury of ample time to work on this together (unlike some rapid-onset older teens and their parents).

The vast majority of parents who read and contribute to 4thwavenow may not be radical unschoolers, but they still unconditionally love and accept their children. In fact, it is precisely because they unconditionally love and accept their children that they want more than anything to help them find ways to be at peace with themselves. No parent is perfect; all of us make mistakes, get frustrated, say or do the wrong thing at times. But despite (or even because of) our blunders, we can grow along with our children. We can model empathy, open-minded curiosity, a willingness to apologize when we get it wrong, and acceptance of ambiguity. In other words, we can and we do model a different kind of affirmation.

14 thoughts on “A different take on affirmation

  1. Thank you Brie for this post. I am one of the many parents with a transgender-announcing older teen. Your approach of unschooling with your child is similar to what us parents assume our young adult children would get from a therapist. A therapist who would ask the questions you were able to ask your child….Why? Where do you think that comes from? What does that mean to you? How else could this be different?

    It’s not unusual for young adults to find it difficult to discuss heavy personal topics with their parents and to turn to others. The others now, due to informed consent and a removal of any safeguarding requirement, are more likely to be peers and the internet vs. a psychotherapist who would ask those questions and help a troubled client work through alternative choices.

    Alas, affirmation now means only the question What can I do? which is write a prescription.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The question, “What can I do?” is answered with one scenario. I will affirm you and help you transition because to not do so will result in suicide.

      How can any parent make a truly informed choice when they really have nothing to choose from? This is a failure on the part of medical professionals to adopt a very risky and trendy solution to a very complicated problem. Add into the mix, a push to entrench our culture with an absurd notion that there is such a thing as gender identity, which can be medicalized, is really the steaming pile of poo on top of an already difficult feeling of gender dysphoria and puberty.

      That’s a hard pass. I don’t believe in the religion of gender ideology. I simply don’t and I won’t have that nonsense go unchallenged in my own home.

      Yeah, still bucking the status quo of the mixed up world of gender ideology and gender identity.

      Liked by 6 people

  2. This is a good post. Your child may think they’re trans because they’ve watched too many YouTube videos, but YouTube didn’t manufacture the feelings of distress and discomfort, it merely provided a label. Every time I see a post on here from someone saying ‘well, my child was such a girly little girl, why would they start identifying as trans at 12? Must be tumblr!’ I’m annoyed. The societal demands of femininity ramp up a lot at 11/12/13! Heels, makeup, shaving, etc.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. after my initial panic I took this approach too. We are at the 16 month mark and things are much smoother. We have been seeing a therapist and psychiatrist team during this time who also continue to help. A diagnosis of ADHD also came along and the treatment for that and her anxiety are really making a difference. I really had to take a long look at my reactions too and learned alot about how I was projecting myself. While she hasn’t “desisted” so to speak she has certainly retreated from the all on stance she had when this started and has stopped wearing the binder, among other things. Not sure how this will turn out but I will love my child and we will continue this journey with better communication and a closer relationship than before.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. “Claims of “child abuse” from both sides against obviously caring parents need to stop. A little empathy will go a long way toward encouraging more productive and meaningful conversations.”
    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! I am fed up of seeing people accuse parents of trans kids in this manner. When it comes to trans-affirming parents, they’re often just going along with what the “professionals” told them to do so they are NOT necessarily abusers. These accusations have actually just provided fuel for the trans movement, convincing them that anyone who questions their narrative must be “phobic”.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Trans-affirming parents and their children are all victims of this grand experiment of gender ideology. It’s really sad to me. I hope that all families that end up supporting their child in transitioning do live good lives. That’s the goal right? All these people in distress looking for answers with the end goal of living a good quality of life.

      My personal view is that healthy bodies are not to be disregarded, even for a child with deep beliefs about their identities. I wish there were more options for such children that didn’t involve being a medical patient for life, with little to no long term outcome studies to suggest that medical and surgical transitioning really is the healthiest way to go.

      Meanwhile, I’ll keep asking, where’s option 3, 4, and 5?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Utterly agreed! My childhood best friend transitioned not long ago (she has autism and has gone through many phases with her identity since she was eight, starting with wanting to be a teenager) and it saddens me that her parents seem to have just gone along with whatever she’s said to them. They probably were who footed the bill for her top surgery. Even so, I can’t hate her Mum. She’s a kind-hearted person who tries to make peace with and understand anyone, so I can see why she bought into this ideology.

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  5. “Claims of ‘child abuse’ from both sides against obviously caring parents need to stop.”

    That sounds nice, but whether something is child abuse has nothing to do with how much the person doing it cares.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree “affirm the child / teen, but not the potentially false transgender identity”. However, I do think it is misleading to creating our own definition of what we think affirmation should look like. Affirmation is a well established process that therapists and surgeons and schools use. And it is destroying lives. This is why I call myself “anti-affirmation” because there is a generally understood meaning of that word that means agreeing that they are transgender and leading them down the transition path. Arguing semantics risks confusion. I want it very clear, I do not agree with pushing transgender identities on kids or letting teens take the lead in deciding whether or not they are transgender, and this is why I will never agree with an affirmative approach, because that it what being “affirmative” means in this climate.

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  7. To suggest that there is a “different take on affirmation” could well lead to confusion. Certainly we need to support our dysphoric and confused teens, but to call such support “affirmation” is only going to give those that already use that term to medicate our kids an excuse to say things like “anti transition campaigner XXX has come out in favour of affirmation”. Sorry, but transactivits will never listen to what your new definition of affirmation is and they will use it against all parents of ROGD kids (as if we need them to have any more ammunition against us than they already do). I normally love everything you write, but suggesting that affirmation is a scale is just downright dangerous. Too many parents know too well that affirmation really means fast track to transition and to use that word for parents who support their kids but not their trans identity is just misleading. Sorry. I normally love everything you write, but this article is very concerning.

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    • MamaBear – I absolutely understand your concern and I appreciate your comment. I think it is crucial, though, that we do affirm (validate) the distress, confusion, and desire our kids express wrt their exploration. Polly Carmichael (Tavistock GIDS) talks about “affirming without confirming,” a distinction I think is relevant and useful. A child who thinks her parents don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge her distress will dig in deeper and, most importantly, might come to discount anything a parent has to say or information they attempt to share. “What we resist, persists.” This is a natural part of identity formation!

      You wrote that, “I do not agree with pushing transgender identities on kids or letting teens take the lead in deciding whether or not they are transgender.” It is impossible to ever control what another person decides is true for themselves. That’s why I think it is important for parents to create space for their children to work through their formation of identity without feeding power struggles; that’s where affirming (validating) their distress and desire is so important. Instead of: “you are NOT trans” how about “tell me why this feels true to you?” and then go from there while, still, respectfully holding on to what is true to you. That’s where this part came from: “I told her I didn’t think she was really a boy but I understood she wanted to be one.” Had I not said that I understood, had I not tried to understand where she was coming from, how could I expect that she would care about anything else I had to say, the information I offered her, or consider questions I asked? I think this is what most of us have done/are doing. TAs shouldn’t get to own affirmation (validation).

      None of this is simple. If we don’t find ways to partner with our children, they will seek out other partners to support and validate them. I don’t really care how transactivists twist my words. I care about young people and their relationships with their parents. I’m willing to say things that fall outside of the allowable rhetoric if it helps parents stand next to their children rather than be positioned in opposition to them, which is exactly what the outside world of trans activists tries to do: pit parents against their children. Don’t let them!

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  8. Thank you for sharing. I feel better about our decisions. Our child and her therapist requested that we use a male name and pronouns. The therapist felt it would help move past the focus on dysphoria so that they could deal with an abundance of other issues. For me, names and pronouns are labels and, unfortunately, English doesn’t give us many options of dealing with labels. And it has allowed all of us to find new ways of communicating and discussing issues and feelings. To borrow from another post I read,, I’m not worried about her being transgender, I’m worried that she is not and that she will realize this too late. I’m going to continue to ask the questions and share my opinions and listen carefully to her. I’m fortunate that she has a natural tendency to do research so presenting facts usually results in more research and informed thinking. She has told me she believes this is a mental illness. Unfortunately she believes it is one for which there will be no relief without medically transitioning. Continuing the discussion and presenting the facts and arguments are causing her to question. That’s the best I can hope for. I have faith that the cosmos will continue to direct us to wherever need to go. Surveillance bravely de-transition when she iscready despite what others think, say or do. She is stronger than anyone, including her, knows.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I hope parents will take a careful approach to their child’s desire to transition. Please take the time to consider both sides. The threat of suicide should be taken as a cry for help. While affirmation is the suggested approach, and the child may feel relief at the thought of living an ‘authentic’ life, there is not enough research into whether this result will last long-term.

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