Being a 13-year-old kid is hard on its own — standing at the precipice of teenagedom, trapped in a body that’s morphing and surging in all sorts of new ways. Now imagine being 13 years old, staring down the barrel of middle school, and finding out that your dad is transitioning into a woman — a woman with a new name, a new look, a new life.
That’s what happened to Ben Lehwald, now 17 years old, who has spent the last four years adjusting to the news that his dad is becoming a woman named Carly. (Ben is chronicling his experience on a new reality show for ABC Family, Becoming Us. The first episode aired earlier this month.) That’s some pretty heavy stuff for a prepubescent boy, and according to Ben’s mom, Suzy, who talked to Babble about their experience, it took a while for Ben to adjust.
In many ways, he’s still processing it all.
Even still, Suzy has seen how this trying experience has increased her son’s awareness for the struggles people face in general, and has helped dig an even deeper well for his innate empathy and caring spirit. As hard as it was (and in many ways, still is) for Ben, there’s been an overwhelmingly positive result, as well.
And there it is, the central paradox in parenting:
While our deepest instinct is to protect our children from any and all pain — we’d go to the ends of the earth, we’d assume all of their heartache if we could — shielding our kids from adversity might do them a huge disservice.
We don’t want our kids to absorb life-altering shock, to have the proverbial rug pulled from under their feet. But many kids, like Ben, come out the other side with more depth and understanding than they had before. Adversity can carve our character and teach important lessons in a way that easy-breezy childhoods simply can’t.
Of course, parents don’t have much choice in the matter — life takes care of adversity and obstacles on its own. According to a recent study, almost half of all U.S. children go through a traumatic event in childhood (“trauma” being anything from a divorce to neighborhood violence to systemic racism). And yes, this includes a parent’s gender reassignment, as the Lehwald family can attest.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In a 2010 study published in The Wall Street Journal, those who experienced a few adverse events in their life had better mental health than those with no history of challenges and struggles. And recent research from the National Council on the Developing Child explored why childhood adversity can either strengthen or flatten kids, concluding that fostering resiliency is key.
“Resiliency depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways,” said Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. “It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”
According to the council’s report, there is a common set of characteristics that help children find the positive in adversity, including at least one stable and supportive relationship between the child and an adult, a sense of mastery over life circumstances, and strong self-regulation skills. It also showed that resilience is not an innate trait — it can be taught and built over time.
It looks like Ben is one of the lucky ones — having the support of his parents and girlfriend (who, it turns out, has a transgender parent, too), as well as years of counseling. And now through the family’s TV show, Ben is able to take a difficult situation and use it for good, as a sounding board for people who are struggling. As many of us know, using our own pain to help others is an incredibly cathartic experience.
Suzy has watched her teenage son learn how to process such a crushing change, and then spread the overriding lesson he’s learned: “It’s all about love and acceptance, and in the end, we’re all family,” she told Babble.
Could he have learned that through other outlets, at other times in his life? Sure. But Ben is learning it through the lens of a parent who’s enduring struggles of her own — social and psychological adversity at the highest level — and still remaining a positive force in his life. Even though she has changed so much on the outside, the love has stayed, the essence has stayed. And that’s a powerful lesson for a kid to learn, no matter how hard it was to actually absorb and accept.
Another important lesson that Ben’s learned is that of patience.
“With teenagers, especially in this day in age, everything is instant,” said Suzy. “He’s learning things take time — time to adjust, to accept. It’s a difficult lesson. He’s still learning.”
A little adversity is good for our children — for their development, their character, their general understanding of the human condition. It might pain us right to our core, watching our babies cry themselves to sleep or fall into a depression, but if we can keep molding their resiliency, keep looking for the overriding lessons, then our kids can handle even the toughest blows that life will inevitably throw at them.
Becoming Us airs every Monday on ABC Family at 9/8c.More On