Adolescence is often experienced as an emotionally turbulent period of identity formation. For this reason, it is imperative that adults prevent children from making life-changing decisions about their gender identity and protect them from an array of potential harms, argues Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder.
If anecdotal and documented accounts are accurate, the number of young people identifying as transgender is skyrocketing. I won’t pretend to know all of the reasons why this is so, because I certainly do not. This is uncharted territory. But as a trained secondary school counselor who taught developmental psychology classes to undergraduate and graduate students for more than a decade, I would like to share a few well-founded, grounded concerns about this trend that should make thoughtful and observant adults pause.
Adolescence is a time for experimenting with different identities. Before adulthood, teens try on various possible selves en route to forming a stable adult identity. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson characterised this as the identity versus role confusion stage of psychosocial development. It can include temporarily trying out a negative self in direct opposition to the expectations and norms of the prevailing culture. (Some teens, for instance, go through a period of juvenile lawbreaking without becoming habitual or adult offenders. This is why we have a separate system of justice to handle offenders who are minors.) Adolescents may ‘try on’ various identities, often in rapid succession, before discarding them.
During this ‘identity crisis’ stage, adolescents may go through a period of intense questioning before achieving identity ‘commitment’. According to psychologist James Marcia, who elaborated on Erikson’s identity stage, this temporary exploratory status is known as a moratorium, during which society allows the emerging adult to be undecided about their identity, while investigating various options. (Moratoria can take different forms in different cultures, but some examples include a ‘gap year’, rumspringa, foreign travel or backpacking, internships, and enrolling in college as an ‘undecided’ student.) Premature resolution of this phase, with commitment before or without exploration, can result in identity foreclosure, which is an unsatisfactory outcome laying the groundwork for future irresolution and disruption of succeeding developmental milestones. Wise adults typically loosen their grip over adolescents’ lives during these years, allowing the experimentation to proceed while remaining watchful for potentially dangerous choices, given teenagers’ natural and hormonally-driven proclivity towards emotional reasoning.
The immature brain
Teens do not reason like adults. They can’t. This is why they still merit the protection of legal guardians. Scientists now believe that human brains are not fully developed until their mid- to late-twenties – particularly the prefrontal cortex which governs abstractions like planning, thinking ahead, predicting outcomes, and controlling impulses. This may explain why societies continue to supervise young people, and why parents often have to redouble their efforts during adolescence, as risk-taking behavior often increases while poor judgment intensifies.
Adolescent brains finish developing from the inside out and from back to front; in other words, the primitive parts mature first. This process can lead to an overactive amygdala, which can increase emotional responses and result in greater impulsivity. Young people also have fragile egos and can be extremely insecure, with unstable self-esteem. They are highly suggestible, impressionable, and susceptible to peer and media influence.