Updated: Feb 16, 2022
By Julia Rutkovsky.
Recently, while working with a group of Twice-Exceptional LGBTQ+ teenagers, I was struck by the empathetic and sensitive way they were able to hold two dichotomous truths: that the parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives loved them, and that those people often made them feel invalidated and unseen. When feeling attacked or hurt, children and adolescents may not express that they understand this dichotomy; however, when reflecting in their safe spaces, Twice-Exceptional children often have a unique ability to see both truths.
So as parents, educators, clinicians, and mentors, how can we better affirm Twice-Exceptional LGBTQ+ children and adolescents? While it may sound like a complicated undertaking, I believe there are just a few simple ways we can deepen our understanding of this intersection and allow that understanding to change the way we talk about gender and sexuality with those who are Twice-Exceptional.
One of the most common questions I get asked in my clinical work is “how do you know my child/student is really queer? How do you know this isn’t just a phase?” The truth is, I don’t know, and I don’t really feel the need to find out. I find that parents, in particular, often feel a pressure to push their children to investigate if they are really queer and worry that if they affirm their child today, their child will not be able to change their identity “back” tomorrow. This is simply not true.
If a child comes to me, and tells me how they identify, I always take that at face value and change what terms and pronouns I use to address them accordingly. I strongly believe that, regardless of if the child identifies as queer only that day or for the rest of their lives, this is the right way to go. If your child does grow into a proudly queer adult, you’ve demonstrated to them from the very start that you support them, love them, and see them. If your child really is going through a “phase,” which is much rarer but not impossible, you’ve demonstrated the exact same thing. By affirming them, you prove that you will love them in any iteration and that they are allowed to be whomever they are around you.
One thing we know about Twice-Exceptional children is that if you tell them something is “not allowed” without a good reason, they will immediately double down on that thing. By telling your child that you believe their queerness is a phase, you actually close the door on that possibility and shut down their exploration and fluidity. If by chance, your child really was going through a phase, they certainly aren’t going to let you know you were right once they feel dismissed.
I want to be clear that I’ve found it very, very rare that a child who identifies as queer at any age was just going through a “phase.” However, I do believe that all children deserve the freedom to explore their gender and sexuality with as much fluidity as they desire. We know that Twice-Exceptional children and adolescents are more likely to engage in this exploration at younger ages, so it is our job as the adults in their life to practice unconditional acceptance.
This may feel like an obvious one, but it’s important that we listen carefully to the children we work with, especially when it comes to their identity. The language around queerness is constantly growing and changing, and we can only learn about someone’s identity by listening to them. Particularly with Twice-Exceptional children, they often know better than us, and it can be incredibly triggering when adults begin to make assumptions. A person is always the expert on their own identity, no matter how young, and any attempt we make to understand without first listening will only make a child feel more invalidated.
When to do my Own Research vs. When to Ask Questions
It is important not to require marginalized groups to bear the sole burden of educating others about their rights and needs; however, it is also important to center marginalized voices when asking questions about their group. So how do we balance these two things when it comes to talking with Twice-Exceptional children about their queerness? There is no simple answer here, but there are a few rules of thumb that might make it easier to decide. Firstly, if you are talking about an individual's identity, pronouns, experience, etc, always ask that person directly. There’s nothing on google that will describe your child’s experience more accurately than your child will. When it comes to more general information–like the history of a movement, terminology and definitions, and socio-political issues–unless your child has a special interest in this area, you can start with your own research and invite your child into the conversation once you have a basic understanding. For Twice-Exceptional children who do not have a special interest in the area, it can feel frustrating and laborious to be educating the adults and peers in their lives all the time. If your child does have a special interest in this area, they may enjoy it, so that may be a more personal decision. If you’re not sure if something would be better researched on your own or by asking your child, why not ask them? A simple “Hey, I have some questions about pronouns. Would it be better to do my own research or to ask you?” gives your child the choice, which can feel very empowering. By asking, you give your child the chance to practice setting those boundaries, something they will need to do time and again.
What if I Make a Mistake?
This is a really great question, and I have to thank the Twice-Exceptional queer kids I’ve worked with over the years for teaching me the answer to this one. If you use incorrect pronouns or terms for someone, it is best to correct yourself as soon as you are able and acknowledge your mistake without a verbose apology. Simple phrases like “Oops, I mean they” or “I got that wrong” let the person know you are trying. It’s important to continue on with the conversation without making a big deal out of your mistake so that you don’t draw more attention to a moment that might feel very upsetting or traumatic to the person you’ve mislabeled. It might feel really natural to apologize, but this can actually make the situation more challenging. By saying “I’m sorry,” you inherently request that the child say “It’s okay,” but for the child, it may not feel okay. By acknowledging your mistake without requiring immediate forgiveness, you demonstrate that you are trying and that you respect the person's right to feel their feelings and process in their own time.
Ultimately, if you are still struggling with these discussions with your child, that’s totally normal. Nobody writes a parenting manual for your child specifically, and there are bound to be bumps in the road as your child continues to grow and change. If you need more assistance, there may be a queer or queer allied provider in your community whose nuanced knowledge and experience you can call upon. Organizations run by queer people for queer communities tend to be the most reliable resources, and just as with any marginalized group, we want to continue to center queer voices in this conversation.
Julia Rutkovsky, LMSW is a social worker and psychotherapist who specializes in working with Twice-Exceptional children, adolescents, and their families. Julia received her B.S. in Social Work and Theater from Skidmore College in 2016, and her Master of Social Work with honors from New York University's Silver School of Social Work in 2017. Julia began her professional work with Twice-Exceptional learners in 2018 as the Associate Director and Summer Program Director at The Quad Manhattan and served as a School Social Worker at FlexSchool, a school for 2e learners in Bronxville, NY. In addition to her LMSW, Julia holds a Certificate in Child and Family Therapy from NYU and the Play Therapy Association (2018) as well as a Certificate in Meeting the Needs of Twice Exceptional Children from the 2e Study Center at The Quad (2019). Julia has received advanced clinical training in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), as well as in working with LGBTQ+ youth.