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  One Compelling Idea:
Whale Rider 


 

 

 

In the film Whale Rider, Paikea is the successor to her Maori tribe’s chief position. But neither she, nor her grandfather, the current chief, realize her life’s path, since girls aren’t allowed to inherit the ancestral leadership role of ‘Whale Rider.’ Pikea’s mother died in childbirth, along with Pikea's twin brother, who would have otherwise become chief. Heartbroken from the loss of his beloved wife and newborn son, Pikea’s father has estranged himself from his native New Zealand to build a new life in Europe as an artist. Pikea’s childhood days on the island are spent riding the bike handlebars with grandpa, Koro, who she loves and admires as a wise hero. Her grandma, Nanny, has a kind, strong, and slightly rebellious spirit which Pikea inherits, fortunately for the community.
 

Koro is the chief of a tribe truly jeopardy, as the next male leader role has yet to be filled after the death of the twin and departure of Pikea’s dad. As Koro witnesses families in turmoil and the ways of the past disappearing, he earnestly begins a training school with the hopes that he can teach the neighborhood boys to become great leaders. The male students largely see the school as a joke, yet one boy who stands out slightly ahead of the rest catches Koro’s eye. Meanwhile, Pikea has been forbidden from participating in the school despite her intelligence and passionate desire. So behind Koro’s back, she begins training in Taiaha stick fighting and Kapa Haka performance with her uncle, a former champion (years before the beer belly crept onto his body). One day behind a building, Koro’s young male protege and Pikea are stick fighting, and Koro catches them just as Pikea defeats him by swiftly knocking the stick out of his hand. The boy realizes he has battled someone special. As Koro shouts at Pikea, a look of helplessness and guilt comes over her face. He blames Pikea’s very spirit as a dangerous disruption, breaking generations of order and tradition. To Koro, Pikea’s pursuit of the male leader role represents the deterioration of the entire Maori culture.

 

Pikea, still desperate not to let her people down, continues her obsession with fixing what is broken in their community, hoping this will win Koro’s blessings. Yet with all her steps forward, Koro pulls away more and more. In a moment of despair, she cries out to the deceased ancestors for help: they heed her call, and their spirits approach the shore as a majestic pod of whales - just like the ones the ancient Whale Rider came on many generations ago. The huge creatures become beached and stuck, an ominous portent that sends the entire community into a frenzy to save them. Pikea, in the climactic scene, follows an intuition to leave home and head to the beach where she beholds the frightening scene of beached whale-ancestors. She climbs up onto the largest one and whispers to it, giving the whale the strength to dislodge itself and lead the entire pod back into the ocean. As she holds on tightly, the whale submerges back into the water, plugging her down with it. Pikea voice narrates, “I wasn’t afraid to die.” In this moment the clan watches from the shore, and what others have always intuited finally becomes clear to Koro: Pikea is this generations's great Whale Rider, called to lead their people into the next era.

 

I won’t tell you what happens in the end, because it’s a fantastic film worth watching. I can’t think of a movie that explores so beautifully the incredible power of extended family and the role grandparents can play in children’s lives. Let’s just say I cried through most of this movie! It struck a profound nostalgia in me and also reminded me that parents with an ROGD teen are facing tremendously difficult decisions about how to weave extended family into their lives. Today’s newsletter will address this issue and hopefully offer some new perspectives on ways to deal with these tricky family dynamics.


Sasha's Two Cents: 

To tell or not to tell ...


 

 

 

Like with most things in life, there’s no simple set of instructions on how to integrate extended family in to the life of a gender-questioning teen. Each family will have a lot to think about and decide on, based on their particular circumstances. Some families are very close and rely on relatives to support in difficult times. For others, a potential conflict about how "affirmative" you should be as a parent may complicate matters. When considering whether (or how) to loop in the family, here are some salient factors that will bear weight on the decisions you need to make.

 

Depends on: how long the teen’s been “out”

  • If the identity is brand new, perhaps it’s better not to say anything quite yet, giving your child some time to work it out on his or her own.

  • On the other hand, some families may recruit other close relatives right away to address things before they spiral.

  • Many families operate on strategies of deliberate ignoring or dread and denial. The teen’s visible attempt to look different becomes the elephant in the room. Questions are left unasked and everyone proceeds as usual, extended family included. I don’t think this approach is helpful when extended past it’s time limits. After all, as kids get older they approach opportunities for autonomous medical decisions.

 

Depends on: child’s presentation & expectations

  • How “outed” is the teen by their appearance alone? Does it look like your child is experimenting with a new aesthetic, or deliberately attempting to appear as the other sex? Are they using a false voice, walking with a “swag” or “sway,” or behaving strangely to “pass” around family? Will your family notice body hair or a lack thereof, and would that be something alarming that begs more questions? If you’re hoping to keep the entire identity issue a secret, you’ll have to consider how your teen’s appearance will land on family members they haven’t seen in a while.

  • For kids whose gender issues remain private fantasies and internal struggles, it’s very possible for extended relatives to remain in the dark about what’s going on, since nothing has visibly changed.

  • If your household is using a new name/pronouns at home, or perhaps you are avoiding names/pronouns altogether, what does the teen expect from you when other relatives are around? Has she/he considered that other family is still going to use their old name/pronouns? Might she be planning to request new pronouns or “come out” to other family? How would that play out? These are conversations you should probably have with your teen before seeing other relatives after a long separation.  

 

Grandparents: generation & disposition

  • Sometimes grandparents are looped in with a spirit of precaution, hoping they’ll be prepared for any tenuous interactions about names, pronouns, or other gender-conflicts that could require explanation. Giving them a heads up and a plan for how to respond can also equip them with a strategy if the child decided to “come out” to grandma and grandpa (which I have found to happen almost never).

  • Other grandparents would be so deeply overwhelmed and confused, even heartbroken, that parents decide to keep it a secret, worried the risk of hurting them is too great


Aunts, uncles, cousins, etc…  

  • Most people above the age of 25 seem rightfully perplexed by the sudden epidemic of “trans teens”, but others blindly follow political mantras and avoid thoughtful critique. If you have a family member like this it might be wise to consider how your child’s struggle could appear to this relative.  If you want relatives to help you offer up counter-narratives to this newly adopted belief system, make sure you recruit selectively.

  • Most people, regardless of political affiliation, are often just as baffled and suspicious of their niece or nephew’s sudden trans declaration. A favorite aunt or uncle might offer an important alliship since your teen would likely be less defensive and recalcitrant talking to them than to you.  Be sure to thoroughly prepare him/her by introducing them to the “trans teen” phenomenon and helping them understand the ideology itself (they’ll need to be prepared for canned answers, unusual belief systems, and scripted responses from your teen).

 

Choosing to keep it a secret: when two worlds collide

  • If you’ve been putting off visiting relatives because of your child’s gender struggle, I believe it’s important to have a sensitive and thoughtful conversation with your teen about it. Most kids love and enjoy their extended family, so struggling with this dilemma is a good way to reality-test the utility of their new persona.  These conversations can be very grounding by pulling your child down from their fantasy-affirming peer bubble. What has your teen failed to consider about how their identity fits into the family life? Is their social media account going to “out them”? Do teachers in their school have ties to extended families in a small community? Can you really lead two separate lives, and if so, for how long? Speak honestly about what’s on your mind and heart. Give them an opportunity to process with you and discuss their ideas too. If there is common ground, you can work together to come up with a strategy. Ultimately, as a parent, you’ll have to set the expectations around what will and won’t be shared with relatives. It can be useful to process this outloud with your teen, giving them a glimpse of how responsible adults look at an issue from multiple angles before making a big decision.
     

If the teen wants to “come out” to others in the family  

  • Often teens base this request on principles of openness, and honesty. She may be seeking a deeper connection by revealing her “authentic” self to loved ones. Perhaps she feels like a liar for trying to live two different lives. Keep this in mind and be sensitive to it, even though the trans identity is likely a premature and false label.

  • This request may also be an attempt to eradicate all reminders of their natal sex by trying to get the whole family on board with a new name and pronouns.

  • Today, most teens’ understanding of what “gender” means is completely novel and strange to many adults. You will need to explain to your child that this new paradigm of “gender identity” is not a concept that is inherently true. Explain that most adults don’t accept gender identity conceptually, if they’re even aware of its existence. Grandparents are likely not aware of the concept at all.

 

Why extended family matters

While it’s important for each of us to follow our own path in life, it’s inescapable that our families play a huge role in molding our earliest Selves. Questions of who we are can’t ever be fully distinct from questions of the original family. Many clients are engaged in a battle for differentiation that ultimately still centers the family and it’s dominance in her/his life (think of the girl who’se always been very feminine and is now, perhaps, trying to prove everyone wrong with a contrived masculinity). Nonetheless, love for the relatives and pride in family heritage are themes that come up often in my work. Here are a few observations I’ve made while talking to teens and young adults:  

 

When a loved one dies

  • Inevitably, whether soon or later, your family will lose someone dear to you and the loss may bring up new issues around your child’s identity. Whether your family had stayed away, or been in close contact, the loss may lead your teen to think more deeply about the role of this identity in his/her life. You’ll be dealing with your own grief, which might make conversations about gender identity seem frivolous and even infuriating. Take your time, and give your teen time and room to have her own experience of the loss.

 

Girls admire “bad ass” grandmothers

  • I often hear stories about older women who inspire my female clients. They might share stories of their grandmother’s interesting experiences around the world, or some anecdotes about her strong character. I’ve heard tearful confessions from clients that being compared to such an amazing woman is a touching honor that makes them feel very proud.

  • When girls are truly reflective and mature, even while trying to fit into a “guy” box, they can start embracing some aspects of themselves that are reminiscent of women they love. This takes a certain level of intellectual maturity but when I see it, it’s very special.
     

Family History

  • Learning more about one’s own family is part of identity development throughout life. Though very young teens may often seem uninterested, older teens and young adults can begin developing a curiosity about their family of origin. Nurture this if it comes up. You can even bring out an old family album and tell your child the important stories of his past and the important people in his life. Indulging this curiosity might allow your teen to ground himself in a more authentic, less superficial path of differentiation.  

  • For kids who have been adopted, questions of identity are ubiquitous. If your adopted child is struggling with gender, it might be worthwhile to spend some focused energy on helping them reconnect with the story of their birth. Proceed carefully here, as these are large existential questions that can shake up intense material for the teen (I talk more about the research on adoption and trans identity in one of my Q & A videos. I highly recommend watching it if you have an adopted child).

 

It will be up to you to decide what role your extended family plays during this time of your teen’s life. Will family be active and engaged with your teen, or will they be sheltered from his/her current self-concept? For those of you who have grappled with these questions, and would like to share your experiences with other parents, please leave your comments on this post in my Parent Membership Site.

Literature Updates

I was interviewed recently by the parent-run website, 4th Wave Now. Click here to read the piece. 

Video Content: Update!

If you'd like to watch my video series on helping ROGD teens work through their gender issues, please visit my SubscribeStar page. There are articles and blog posts available for all, and for subscribers, you'll be able to access video content and submit specific questions about your teen's case. 

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