There is a crucial shift in youth culture, and Christian teens need to understand transgenderism as well as how to respond in love and truth.
Parents today are getting savvier when it comes to the alphabet soup of social media codes. While SMH, YOLO and FOMO quickly became cemented into the larger digital landscape, a new acronym has emerged that most parents haven’t yet encountered: ROGD.
Before you start sweating this like the newest Wordle, I’ll fill you in. ROGD stands for “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” This term was first used in a 2018 study involving more than 250 parents whose teenage children (83% of whom were girls) suddenly announced they were transgender, despite showing no earlier signs of gender confusion. Researcher Lisa Littman found that among the teen and young-adult social groups she studied, 37% included a majority of members who became “transgender-identified.”
Although Littman was cautious about her findings, she hypothesized that “social contagion is a key determinant of rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” In other words, exposure to social media and friend groups in which some young people identify as transgender may lead others to claim the same identity.
This may explain why, according to the Williams Institute, the number of transgender-identified youth in the U.S. doubled from 150,000 to 300,000 between 2017 and 2022. During the same time period, however, the percentage of adults claiming to be transgender remained steady.
We’re witnessing a significant shift in youth culture, and Christian teens need help understanding transgender issues as well as discerning how to respond in loving and truth-filled ways.
Starting the Conversation
When talking about sexual issues with teens, I find it helpful to start with God’s original design. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read that God separated everything He created—darkness from light, land from water, swimming creatures from those that fly. As His final creative act, God fashioned humankind in His image and distinguished them as male and female.
In human sexual identity, as in other aspects of God’s created order, we see healthy distinction and holistic connection. Women and men bring distinct and irreplaceable attributes to humanity. The Bible isn’t the only authority to make this claim. Medical science has also verified the differences between men and women down to the cellular level.
However, this is not a story the culture allows anymore. There’s a powerful movement to sever gender from bodily sexual identity and conform all aspects of human society to this new unreality.
The World Health Organization, for example, claims that “gender identity refers to a person’s internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to their sex at birth.” Disconnecting gender from sex at birth is clearly not a medically informed position. Sadder still, a Supreme Court justice, when still a nominee, couldn’t define what a woman is. When adult culture is this confused (or agenda-driven), we can be certain that our youth are suffering.
Affirming our Children’s Sexuality
As parents, we should positively affirm and regularly reinforce the goodness of being a girl or a boy. With young children, we can talk about their bodies during bath time or on the changing table. (Yes, it really should start this young.)
Above all, we want our children to know that before they were born, God loved them and delighted in creating each of them exactly as He intended. Hearing the truth from us early and often will equip them for the challenges they’ll encounter later on, including questions about the existence of God or assertions that biological sex and gender are nothing more than social constructs.
Teenagers are more adept at sniffing out and avoiding teachable moments, but the guidance is similar. We can subtly affirm our children’s God-given sexuality by saying, “You’re an amazing daughter!” or “I’m proud of you, Son.” Other ways to encourage a healthy identity include talking regularly with our teens about their peer relationships and how their friends talk about sex and gender.
Modeling God’s Created Order
Perhaps our most important parental influence comes through modeling sexuality in a healthy way. The culture demeans women every chance it gets. Women are frequently the target of sexualized violence on TV and are normalized as sex objects in pornography. When a girl sees boys mistreating her friends or experiences such mistreatment herself, it can be easy to conclude that being a girl isn’t such a great idea. Girls who grow up in a home with a mother and father who love each other and model what a healthy sexual identity looks like develop a healthy picture of what it means to be a woman.
The culture also presents a tragically distorted vision of what it means to be a man. Men are often portrayed as idiots, overgrown adolescents or sexual aggressors. Boys need to be around godly men who treat women respectfully and lovingly inside and outside the home. In families where the dad is absent, a male relative or youth pastor can model these qualities in intentional ways.
Speaking Openly About Our Broken World
Our kids need more than a healthy sexual identity to handle the challenges of the current transgender wave. We need to help them understand how to respond when a classmate suddenly comes to school dressed in opposite-sex clothing and uses a different name.
For years I’ve helped my children understand confusing or difficult topics by speaking openly about the reality of living in a sinful world. When they ask why some people steal, kill or do other terrible things, I remind them of the Fall and the presence of sin in every human heart. To be clear, when I share hard things with my younger children, I don’t give them gory details or frighten them. I simply explain that when people turn away from God in their hearts, they lose interest in showing love and respect for other people.
I also explain that the curse of sin is more than just willful disobedience. The Bible teaches that all of creation was wounded because of sin (Genesis 3:17; Romans 8:19-22). These fractures continue to impact us. Some people are born with mental or physical challenges. Others develop diseases early or later in life. On top of that, many people eagerly deal out confusion as they follow the father of lies. For these and many other reasons, challenges such as transgenderism should drive us closer to Christ and the guidance of His revealed Word.
Jesus understood the sin of the people around Him, but He saved His condemning words for the leaders and institutions that deceived people and kept them in bondage. We, too, must distinguish between the corporations and public figures pushing the trans agenda and the individual boys and girls suffering from very real pain and confusion.
In the study referenced earlier, the researcher suggested another possible reason for the rapid increase in transgenderism. She wrote, “For some individuals, the drive to transition may represent an ego-syntonic but maladaptive coping mechanism to avoid feeling strong or negative emotions.” In other words, some young people may choose a trans identity as a way to avoid overwhelming negative emotions. In today’s social climate, coming out as a trans girl or boy often generates a great deal of positive affirmation. This may conceal the underlying emotional distress for a time, but it remains unhealed.
We’ve all felt pain that we haven’t always handled well. So have our teens. Teaching them how to identify and understand their own emotional pain can help them become more sensitive to the pain and confusion others may be experiencing.
Sharing the Gospel in a Dark World
Even as we teach our children to show compassion and respect for others, we must prepare them for the likelihood that their love and concern will be misunderstood as disrespect or even hatred. Much of the world now sees gender identity as an exclusively internal and individual expression. Attempts to reconnect it to one’s biological sex are often labeled as intolerant or dangerous.
Sharing the Gospel of love and hope with a transgender peer isn’t easy. However, a simple rule may help our teens know when others will be more likely to receive their words. A pastor once shared that people can’t hear you when they’re walking away from you. We can share truth with others at any time, but they may only hear it if they’re moving toward us.
I’ve seen situations where Christian kids have tried to evangelize their peers, but the words fell flat. This happened largely because they had no real relationship with those they were talking to. Unless God directs our teens to share a specific message, they might do better forming a relationship with a transgender-identified peer. Even without such a relationship, they can ask questions driven by respect and genuine interest in the individual. “How long have you felt this way?” will have a very different impact than “Why are you doing this?”
More than ever, it’s important to help our teens establish healthy boundaries in their relationships. One area to discuss is where your family stands on the pronoun debate. In my family, we have chosen to use one another’s preferred names but not a false pronoun. A name is not an immutable aspect of a person’s being, but sexual identity is. To use a factually incorrect pronoun, even out of a heart of compassion, is to affirm and reinforce an untruth.
Young people are under enormous pressure to conform to the world around them. I’ve heard stories of straight kids telling others they were gay or bisexual just so they wouldn’t stand out among their peers. Our kids will be pressured to affirm these new identities and may even be placed in situations at school or work where they feel coerced into violating their consciences. All of this will be presented as the “loving thing to do.”
But as Thomas Merton reminds us, “To love others well we must first love the truth,” and “If I am to love my brother, I must somehow enter deep into the mystery of God’s love for him.”
May we and our teens have the heart of Christ, who moved, ate and lived among sinners so that by knowing Him they might also come to know His truth and love forever.
Published on Tuesday, February 7, 2023 @ 5:10 PM EDT