Ask Allie: Protect Your Questioning Child

by Sarah Rutledge Fischer, (she/they)

Dear Allie…

After a long year of distancing, we are traveling to see my siblings, but I’m worried that our family reunion is going to be a family disaster.

I love my brother, but we don’t always see eye to eye. Usually, I let his comments slide, but the political has become personal. Last week my brother posted a meme mocking transgender people and LGBTQ life. The thing is—my teenager recently came out to me as questioning their gender and wanting to use they/them pronouns.

I don’t know what to do. Is there a way to set boundaries with my brother without making him defensive and confrontational? How do I protect my child from their uncle’s harmful jokes without outing them before they are ready? Is there a way to address this that leads to understanding instead of conflict?

Mom In the Middle

Dear M.I.M.,

The hardest thing about setting boundaries, especially with family, is accepting that we cannot control other people’s reactions. Of course, there are ways to be rude and ways to be polite. But at the end of the day, the only one who can control your brother’s reaction is your brother. And in this scenario—in which your brother is making jokes that could harm you and your child—his comfort is my lowest concern. So instead of wasting any more ink on his reaction, let’s discuss the boundary and then talk a bit about you and your child.

You have two basic boundary options: an explicit boundary and a secret one. If you choose the first, you will establish a specific boundary, communicate the boundary to your brother, and be prepared to act if he violates it. For example, “While we are together, I do not want any comments or jokes made in front of me or my child that disparage or make fun of women, LGBTQ+ people, or people of other races. If you cannot manage to respect this, we will leave.”

The best part of an explicit boundary is that, once you have communicated it, everyone knows where you stand. But there are downsides that should be considered. First, if your child is not ready to be out to the family, this kind of boundary could leave them feeling very exposed. Second, if your family is not accustomed to people setting boundaries, it could be a jarring interaction for everyone. No matter how calm and polite you are, they may frame your attempt to set a boundary as initiating conflict or being dramatic. It isn’t, but don’t waste your time and energy trying to convince them.

The other option is to set a private boundary around yourself and your child that establishes you as their fierce champion in a secret battle against bigots. This option requires a lot of trust and advance conversation with your child—maybe the creation of some secret code words and inside jokes. The downside of this option is that your child may be exposed to your brother’s bigotry. The upside is that your child can remain safely in the closet until they are physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to be out.

To choose the right type of boundary, discuss the situation with your child. Be honest—share your concerns and listen to theirs. Consider not only what they can endure, but what they shouldn’t have to. Choose the boundary together. Then, continue checking in and listening to your child before, during, and after the visit. The process of developing a separate and independent sense of self, called individuation, can leave even the best-loved teenagers feeling uncertain of their parental ties. Make sure your child knows that your discomfort is about fear of conflict and not about them or their identity. Also, no matter which type of boundary you choose, make sure your child knows that you are prepared to leave at any time if they do not feel safe.

Finally, treat yourself with compassion if you are struggling with the idea of setting this boundary. Glennon Doyle once said “When it comes to authenticity: Family is not the starting place; family is the final frontier. Practicing authenticity with family is like practicing cat grooming in a lion’s den. If you’d like to practice being real and vulnerable and yourself—don’t start with your family, start with your mailman.” The same goes for boundaries. This is hard stuff.

Talk to your child. Honor their feelings. Be firm with your brother and gentle with yourself. That should get you started.

Your friend,

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