Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Trans Identification in Teens
Last March, at the beginning of the pandemic, I never would have put Covid and transgender in the same sentence. I also never thought I'd be writing publicly about matters as private as my son's sexual development. But, just like the toll on small businesses and civil liberties, the effects of the loneliness and isolation sparked by the Covid lockdown and its aftermath have been catastrophic.
Just a few months into quarantine, my 13-year-old son shyly came to me at bed time with some big, exciting news. He was transgender!
He’d been thinking about it for about a month, he said, and he was now sure. He didn’t really like his body, especially his shoulders and his voice and, after some online exploration, he had figured out why. It was because he wasn’t a boy, he was a girl!
He looked at me expectantly, watching for my reaction. What he got was about two minutes of stunned silence. Then, like most moms would do, I gave him a big hug and said that I loved him no matter what.
My son is a typical boy. His childhood was full of frogs and trucks and dirt. He loves camping and hiking and superheroes. No history of depression, no history of dysphoria. This involved mom would know. But my impressionable young teen had also been in lockdown, like the rest of us, since March.
As a parent, I worried about the impacts of lockdown from the start. Didn’t teenagers need their friends? To forge those social bonds, to find his place in a group, during this critical time in forming his identity? The abrupt shutdown of school, and the inadequate virtual school that was thrown together last spring seemed like exactly the thing that would untether a child from teenage reality.
I was anticipating some teenage angst. But I never saw it. By all outside appearances, my son was doing fine. I saw my son enjoying the outdoors, hiking, canoeing. He seemed happy and well adjusted, laughing and joking with the family as usual.
Even still, I worried constantly throughout the summer and checked in on him frequently. When I asked if he was lonely, and how he was feeling, his answer was always: “Mom, I’m fine! I talk to my friends on Discord. It’s not the same as being in person, but it’s okay.” We’d also relaxed our tight rules on video game use, feeling that he deserved an entertainment outlet under the circumstances.
Well, it turns out that appearances were deceiving. Things were not fine.
Lockdown had thrown my child’s life upside down; but like many teens, he just didn’t know how to express that, or where to turn for help when his usual social world and friend connections fell apart. His deep loneliness led him to seek out answers, and a new tribe.
After my son’s big announcement, I was truly baffled, and wondered where this new identity had come from, as it had emerged, seemingly, from thin air.
So, I started digging. And, sadly, what I found after auditing his electronics was shocking. My son had been lonely and cut off from his small group of close friends.
He started to wonder why he felt so alone, and so different. In a normal peer group, in a non-lockdown situation, this would never have happened. But, with no way to connect with peers in real life, my son sat in the solitude of his room and turned to the internet for answers about why he felt different.
Strangers on quora.com and Reddit quickly diagnosed my gifted, quirky child – who was in the beginning, most awkward phase of puberty – as transgender. He was praised for “realizing his true self!” and being brave, and welcomed into a group of other lonely people trying to figure themselves out. These people presented themselves as teens and young adults, but there’s no real way to verify this in today’s social media environment.
With my son’s big announcement, our family plummeted into depression and despair as we tried to reconcile ourselves to what was happening.
Unlike other teen identity groups, transgender has a pretty serious price of entry. To be part of this tribe, you need to change your name, the pronouns you request, and renounce your old self.
From there, it’s a slippery slope toward harmful wrong-sex hormones and, ultimately, plastic surgery to alter your body’s external sex presentation.
As a mom, I felt intense pain for my son, and sadness that my perfect (in my eyes) child had developed a sense of insecurity and shame about his body under my very nose. I felt horror and sorrow that he had then been made to feel that his feelings of insecurity could and should be medically fixed.
Most of all, I was saddened that he had reached out for help, in the midst of Covid anxiety and loneliness and found it amongst strangers, who fed him misinformation, and false promises of transition as a cure-all for teenage blues.
Thankfully, my son now believes that he had reached some incorrect conclusions about himself last summer. In the parlance of trans, he has desisted from believing he is transgender — a common occurrence it turns out, despite what trans activists would like you to believe. And our family has learned some valuable lessons about checking in on each other, and being each other’s support network.
This was one of many unanticipated ways that children’s suffering is manifesting during the Covid lockdown. In trying to make sense of this all, I reached out to other parents whose lives had taken such a turn and quickly discovered that many others had received similar surprise announcements over the last year. So I'm certainly not the only mother who has had to walk through this minefield.
We are only just beginning to understand the deep fractures in our families sparked by the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant disruption to our children’s formative years. So much more study is needed.
Teens need to develop their identities, to bond with their peers, to live through those social rites of passage. They will complete that required teenage search for the self in whatever fashion they can.
If they are prevented from finding their group in real life, they will find different groups to fill that emptiness, that need for belonging, as teens from time immemorial have done.
As a parent, I would give the following warning: Be aware that your teen may be lonely, even if he or she doesn’t know how to show it and even if you don’t see it. Your teen likely has lost friends and close relationships over the last 18 months and may be unsure how to start again to rebuild their social lives in a healthy way.
Without a loving, supportive family relationship, this loneliness and insecurity can spiral in strange and potentially dangerous directions, including transgender identification, as kids desperately try to find connections and a sense of belonging in these alienating times.