How to build resilience in trans kids (and everyone else)

With all the focus on awful government news these days, it’s easy to forget how much power we have as individuals—and as a thriving community of queer and trans people and our allies.

Let’s not get locked in to planning for the next 4 years. Let’s also look at the next 40 and the next 400. We need queer and trans kids to grow up resilient and become powerful adults. We know this is possible because we have powerful queer and trans adults who grew up when U.S. culture was worse than it is now for queer and trans kids. Remember the 1980s? Or the 1950s?

Each of us has the opportunity to help build resilience in each other and in the next generation of queer and trans kids. Let’s look at how we do this:

According to a great Harvard article, the common factors that “predispose children to positive outcomes in the face of significant adversity” are:

  1. facilitating supportive adult-child relationships;
  2. building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control;
  3. providing opportunities to strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities; and
  4. mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions.

Here are action steps each of us can take to make those factors widely available to our next generation:

1. Be a visible and available source of support

Resilience studies are showing that a single strong relationship with another person can create a sense of belonging and make the difference between despair and growth. The Harvard article states, “The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

Even small moments add up. Being out ourselves, displaying signs and buttons that identify us as queer, trans, nonbinary, allies, etc.—this shows kids that there are adults who will help them, give advice, create breathing room, listen to them with respect.

For me as a lesbian teen in the 1980s, every time I saw an adult lesbian with a good life—that was a vote for me having the life I wanted. I learned volumes about what kind of woman I wanted to be from hanging out with Kate Bornstein. I needed adults to show me what was possible for myself. Today’s kids are still on the lookout for models of what’s possible. Be those models.

2. Provide communities of belonging and cultural tradition

In addition to being visible as individuals, we can keep creating communities where queer and trans kids are welcome, safe and valued. We’ve been making accepting and welcoming school districts for years, we don’t need an executive order to do it.

Empowering communities includes:

  • Spending time creating and moderating online communities
  • Using social media to spread positive, skill-building information
  • Making sure your faith community is loudly, openly supportive
  • Donating time or money to organizations that support youth
  • Publicizing organizations that support youth so more youth can find them
  • Bringing resources to your school district so they can declare their support

In addition, we need to be loud about our LGBTQIA+ history. We’ve come through a lot in the last 100 years. Seeing what we faced and overcame helps empower us for the fights we’re in now.

3. Create optimism

Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, says that optimism is a key to resilience. When the army approached him in 2008 to help develop resilience in soldiers he created a program, “based on PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment—the building blocks of resilience and growth.”

In that program, “The emotional fitness module … teaches soldiers how to amplify positive emotions and how to recognize when negative ones, such as sadness and anger, are out of proportion to the reality of the threat they face.”

One of the horrible consequences of bullying and abuse is that we go continue to be awful to ourselves after the bullying or abuse has stopped. Now is a good time to review our emotional intelligence and make sure that we can turn ourselves around—plus model this for any young people who need help re-framing situations, stopping negative mental loops, and avoiding catastrophic thinking. Together we can create and hold a positive vision for the future that we’re all working toward. We need that vision!

4. Build on strengths

Seligman’s work with the army also emphasizes seeing each person according to their strengths. This ties in to the Harvard points about self-efficacy, perceived control and adaptive skills. There are many strengths-based systems online.

I like the Gallop Strengths Finder and it’s what my marketing firm uses. You can see the 34 strengths online here or you can buy the book or take the test. I like the way qualities that I’ve seen criticized in certain settings (like me being creative in junior high school) become powerful in the right context. Now my Ideation strength—being fascinated by ideas—is highly valued at my marketing firm.

Any strengths framework will work or you can ask any kid you’re talking to what they see as their strengths. These become touchstones to return to again and again when times get tough. In fact, if you don’t have a good sense of your strengths, feel free to pause reading this blog post and jot some down.

5. Tell powerful stories

The stories you use to explain what happens in your life can sap your vitality or give you tremendous power. According to the Greater Good Science Center, “When something bad happens, we often relive the event over and over in our heads, rehashing the pain. This process is called rumination; it’s like a cognitive spinning of the wheels, and it doesn’t move us forward toward healing and growth.”

They recommend a practice of expressive writing for about 20 minutes a day for a few weeks, where you explore your thoughts on a topic and list three positives. “In a 2014 study, doing this practice daily for three weeks helped participants become more engaged with life afterward, and it decreased their pessimistic beliefs over time.”

This is also a technique that can be done in a conversation. Talk about fears, concerns and negatives together, and then begin shaping a more positive story. Over time this gets easier and more fun to find the positive and weave them together into a heroic, empowering tale.

6. Engage in any kind of somatic practice

Increasingly, science is discovering that trauma is stored in the body, not encoded like normal memories. For kids (and adults) who have traumatic histories, now is the time to free our bodies.

In addition to creating mental optimism, building your body’s ability to move through negative or traumatic experience also drives better self-regulation. As you gain more mastery in calming your body, it becomes easier to focus the mind, stay optimistic, tell your story and create your future.

Powerful somatic practices include: Meditation, relaxation, yoga, dance, sports, play—and, you know me, I’m going to include video games as long as you breathe deeply and move around a bit while you play.

We have better communication technology, more science, more financial resources and a larger community of allies than we have ever had. Let’s empower some kickass kids!