Bad Advice to Trans Student?

The mom of a trans young adult wrote to Cary Tennis of Salon’s “Since You Asked” column because her daughter is

away at college and underachieving in a major way. She says that she can’t motivate herself to attend her less-than-full load of classes, can’t think of what she wants to do with herself, even in a short-term way.

The mom clarifies that the family has been supportive of her transition, etc.

Cary responds with: do nothing. Really? Her parents are paying for college and she’s doing so little she may fail all her classes and the advice columnest says “do nothing”? I think that’s ridiculous, but I’m not a parent.

I’d have her withdraw and get a job, pay her own rent for a while, & then when she was ready for someone to spend a ton of money on her education, I’d send her back to college.

As far as I can tell, this doesn’t have much to do with her daughter being trans, except that the mother seems to think that’s an important piece of information. It may be, but it may not have anything to do with it.

5 Replies to “Bad Advice to Trans Student?”

  1. I was fairly unmotivated in college though I did graduate with good grades. I think your advice is great and would also add that traveling in other countries – independently and on a limited budget – with different cultures and economies can be incredibly eye opening as well as educational. I didn’t begin to do that until two years after I had graduated and wish I had dropped out and done it during college. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money (living at home, I think it would be easy to get a job and save for six months to finance six months of travel) and can definitely change one’s perspective on life. There are tons of resources out there to help someone get started. Just a thought as I write this from Guatemala.

  2. Perfect.

    Sending her to college before she truly wants it is like sending her to eat when she’s not hungry. I’ve known people who got hungry – later – and then they did just fine.

  3. While I can sympathize with the parents who clearly want the best for their child, there is no point being in college until she develops a passion for something that demands it. I have seen this same thing time and time again. College is tough if there is no driving force.

    The parents need to give this young lady some space to adjust and think about the things in life other than the transition she just went through. A job wouldn’t be a bad idea for a while, something not too demanding so she can discover the path that she really wants. If she had the discipline to get through transition she will probably discover a career and be brilliant at it. Hang in there!

  4. “Do nothing” is probably not the best advice, nor is “remove yourself from college until you get motivated”. “Do nothing” expects that the student will figure things out on her own, and “remove yourself from college” prevents academic progress and could make it more difficult to get re-admitted to the school in the future.

    I transitioned in college. I too underachieved during my extended stay at the university. It’s easy to misunderstand or to pass judgement on the situation if you haven’t been through it yourself — from the outside it seems like an obvious “she’s not motivated”, but based on my own experience I’m guessing that there’s more to it than a simple lack of motivation.

    It’s important to remember that transition is freaking hard. Regardless of who you are or what your circumstances are, transition requires a lot of energy and self-confidence and identity reinforcement to make it through the day. Imagine transitioning amid a campus full of beautiful young adults who are coming of age and focusing their attentions on relationships and their appearances, etc. Imagine spending hours in a crowded classroom feeling like you don’t quite pass. Imagine the emotional drain of daily interactions when you’re not quite satisfied in how you’re expressing your gender identity. It kind of sucks. . .

    After six and a half years of faltering I graduated and I moved into the working world (there is life after college), and three years out I’m making a six-figure salary. I think that it’s important to understand our own social needs, and it’s important to find ways to get through the day (while still following through on the things we’re responsible for). My advice to the parent would be to communicate this to her daughter and to offer help where she can. A lot of it the student will need to figure out on her own; everyone has slightly different needs and different techniques for getting through the day. If I were to do it again I would try to find a way to take classes where the social setting isn’t so complex and emotionally draining. I would try to schedule course load so that there are long breaks between classes to give me time to recharge my batteries before confronting another classroom.

    Leaving school should be a last resort.

  5. Yes , it was atrociously bad advice.

    All the mother says is that her daughter isn’t getting her schoolwork done. What else might be going on with the daughter that mom or dad don’t see? Is she sleeping poorly?  Not eating?  Isolating herself?  Cutting?

    Cary goes on at some length about the virtues of doing nothing, then adds almost a footnote saying, oh, but if she’s depressed it’s a completely different situation. With that incomplete description of her behavior, depression is too likely to relegate it to a footnote. Depression kills. Take it seriously.

    Lots of young people deal with depression when they start college. Change is stressful, and stress is a major trigger for depression. Changing one’s publicly-recognized gender role is tremendously stressful (she was always a girl / woman, the change is that now people know). Mom seems to think that the transition is all over, all done, and it’s time to get on with other things. Hey mom: it’s never over. We are all forever in the process of becoming who we are, and trans people, like many other people, have a major shift to accommodate into their lives, and always will.

    Neither mom nor Cary mentions therapy. Is she seeing anyone? Is she on medication? If she’s taking an SSRI, someone should tell both her and her mother that while SSRIs can help manage depressive symptoms, they can also produce a profound apathy that makes it virtually impossible to get anything done ( A person in that state can watch things falling apart and simply not care.

    Doing nothing is a really bad idea. This person has a serious problem that needs to be addressed. If she’s already getting professional help, get differentprofessional help – at least a second opinion. Connect her with the counseling center at school. Is she involved in any LGBT/trans/etc. student organizations? She might have an initial “do I really belong among these people?” reaction, but she needs to have people to talk with, to whom she doesn’t have to explain everything because they already get it.

    Do something.

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