Providing Support To All: Trails Carolina therapists discuss importance of accepting and supporting students of all gender identities
Feeling comfortable in your own skin is extremely important to your overall mental health. At Trails Carolina, we want all students to feel free to be themselves. That’s why it’s so important for us to help students who identify as transgender or gender questioning to feel affirmed and supported in their exploration process.
Letting students be their own experts
In a wilderness setting, students are in an environment where they can experiment and begin to understand who they are as individuals. For example, when students who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming first enter the program, I always ask them if they’d be more comfortable in the male or female group.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to let students be their own expert and let everyone at the program know what they are and aren’t comfortable with. This begins in the initial assessment process. We ask all students the question: “how do you identify and which pronouns should we be using?”. This makes it clear how students wish to be addressed.
Helping Students Feel Comfortable
It’s important for students to feel included and not to feel ostracized by the group.
For example, my group which is known as “Charlie”, recites a morning mantra every morning. About 4 years ago, the language of that mantra changed from “we the ladies” to “we the humans of Charlie”. Additionally, on a daily basis instead of addressing the group by saying “hey ladies”, we’ve changed the language to “hey people” or “hey Charlie”. We want everyone in the group to feel like they belong and aren’t being put in a specific box.
Another thing I do to help students feel comfortable and included is adding LGBTQ oriented and rainbow stickers to my water bottle. Sometimes it’s the little things that help students feel supported and accepted by our group.
In addition to supporting transgender and gender nonconforming students, it’s also important to support their parents. A parent’s acceptance and level of understanding about gender identity issues can be on a spectrum. It’s not always the case that parents are completely accepting or disapproving of their child’s identity.
Parents often have questions about what it means to be transgender or gender questioning and what research says to support gender identity issues. It’s crucial to meet parents where they are at within that spectrum of acceptance. The process of acceptance can be long and difficult for parents, but we hope to provide an outlet for them to work through their feelings in safe, supportive environment rather than just saying “get on board” without taking what they are going through into account.
For many parents, they feel like their child’s identity issues means the loss of the child they’ve always known and having someone they don’t really know in their family. They worry that their child’s identity issues will lead to bullying and other challenges down the line. In my work with parents, instead of focusing on those worries and feelings of loss, I try to shift the conversation towards restructuring the hopes and goals families have for their child. It’s a very hard thing for many families to process, but in the end it can bring families closer than they ever were in the past.
Trails Carolina can help
Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy program for teens ages 10-17, helps teens struggling with emotional and behavioral challenges such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and defiance. For more information about the program, please call 800-975-7303.