There is a lot of noise coming from the other room, but it’s happy noise.

It's the sound of children playing, laughing, and talking in broken conversations that only make sense to 3-year-olds. I peek around the corner to see what my twins are up to and watch Ryan tackle Ben. I wait for Ben’s reaction, and walk away when he starts to giggle. They’re fine.

Ben was quiet in utero, in terms of movement. His twin was not. Ryan was restless, seemingly fighting for space, or perhaps looking for it. When my partner’s water broke at 36 weeks, it was Ben who entered our world first.


Ryan would have been right behind, but for about 30 seconds his heartbeat could not be found. The monitor had been bumped off during the commotion of Ben’s birth, so once the room started to breathe again, the doctor broke the second sac so that Ryan could be born.

All photos via Amber Leventry, used with permission.

For nearly three years, Ben and Ryan were our sons.

They were the baby bros to their big sister, our first child. Two boys born into a house with two moms and a sister, they balanced the hormone levels a bit. We were relieved they would have each other to lean on in a house filled with women.

We quickly realized our boys were very different babies with very distinct personalities. Ben was, and is, the easier twin and our easiest child. He has always been more content and quicker to smile.

Ryan, on the other hand, has been the child who has challenged us the most. His restlessness in utero translated into a baby who was not easily comforted, who always seemed to need something we weren’t providing. Our love was strong, but our previous experience as parents seemed weak.

In the early stages of getting to know our twins, we noticed the unmistakable bond they already had with each other. They didn't know themselves without the other. And in some cases, when I or my partner (or both of us) were busy taking care of their then-toddler sister, all they had was each other.

They would babble to each other from their cribs when we couldn’t rush in to get them after they woke. They would stare and giggle at the other when seated on a blanket full of toys, entertained more by each other than the toys at their feet. They would feed each other food from their trays, sitting side-by-side, heart-by-heart.

When Ryan was an infant, there were many times we didn’t know what to do or how to make him feel better.

As he got older, the independence of crawling and walking eased some frustration. Words helped, too. Ryan just wanted to be understood, and we were doing our best to understand.

His gravitation toward his big sister’s clothing at 18 months told us he liked dresses, pink, and purple. His desire for long hair made us regret cutting all of his long curls off before he turned 2.

A few months later, Ryan’s declaration that he was a girl made us question his motivation for saying so.

Perhaps he loved his big sister so much he wanted to be just like her. Maybe he thought he had to be a girl to wear dresses, to play with princesses, and to grow long hair. We didn’t care that he was a boy who liked "girl" things and told him so. But he cared. He was not a boy who liked dresses — he was a girl who liked dresses.

We skirted around gender by no longer referring to Ryan as a boy. We called him our kid, not boy or girl, and we lived a few months in a land of neutrality. His moodiness, anxiety, and sadness told us we needed to do more. We were loving our child, but not validating who he really was and who she needed to be.

After a lot of research and consultations with our pediatrician, and with Ryan’s unwavering wishes, we began the process of socially transitioning him from a boy to a girl. A month before Ryan turned 3, we once again broke the sac that contained her and celebrated her birth.

This new Ryan was happier than the first. She became easier to please and more relaxed. Our new understanding came with acceptance and support, and our internal struggles with saying goodbye to what we thought was going to be, were overshadowed by the confidence and joy radiating from our daughter.

Our twins are now a boy/girl set, and we have two daughters instead of one.

Our family’s dynamics have changed, and sometimes I miss having "the bros," but I worry more about the impact Ryan’s transition will have on Ben.

Ben is not just the only boy in the house, he is now the twin brother to a transgender sister. His identity was changed too, and when Ryan pulls away to stand alone as a girl, or to search for more ways to solidify her identity as a girl, I worry about their bond.

Ryan was home sick from school one day, and when my partner picked up Ben, the teachers said he had a good day, but missed Ryan. “She’s my best friend,” he told the teacher.

I realized their bond has always been there and always will be. Ryan has been pushing and pulling to get where she needs to be from the beginning. And Ben has always been next to her, seemingly not bothered by her restlessness or aware of her differences.

This love they have for each other is there, waiting behind doors, peeking around corners, hidden in simple gestures, and shared in conversations only they can understand.

I have been waiting for Ben’s reaction, but I now know it’s okay to walk away. They are fine.

This story was originally published on Motherly and is reprinted here with permission.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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