My Child Says They Are Transgender, Now What?

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child says they are transgenderYour Child Says They Are Transgender. Now What?

In many families, parents may be engaged with their child’s “coming out.” This process may be gradual or fast and can come in many different aspects of identity. For some, the coming out process involves sharing their sexual orientation, and for others, it can be sharing gender identity as being trans or gender nonconforming. How often does this occur? Unfortunately, we have no idea because statistics on gender identity have never been collected historically. Some small surveys indicate that the rate of occurrence is somewhere between 0.5-1.5{0577333bb3a455604d8cc2e627147e6f09bad6acf3cd9976a213fc3d66388fd6} of the population, but these are practical guesses at this point.

Another challenge is that gender identity is often something that people may wrestle with for a very long time because it is not always clear or necessarily related to sexual attraction or body image. For some people, body image challenges can be part of a larger picture of gender identity, while most people with body image issues do not have questions about their underlying gender. Lastly, we tend to overuse gender biases for certain personality characteristics, e.g. being overly interested in dolls as a sign of feminine gender identification, which can lead to questions about gender identity that have more to do with figuring out where identity fits.

trans youth and gender identityFor many parents, a child coming out can be scary. Parents can question their child’s safety, the permanence of the identity, and what factors in the child’s personal history that may have influenced their journey. It has been a long time since we attributed sexual identity to past history of trauma or thought of it as a treatable mental illness, but it can be hard for parents to accept the concept that their child sees their gender identity differs from the sex that they were assigned at birth. A question that I am commonly asked is whether or not it is possible that the gender identity is a phase through which the child will pass versus a real identity that will perpetuate throughout adulthood.

For years, I sought to come up with the best way to assess the permanence of gender identity to help steer parents in the best direction, but none of my research has ever resulted in certainty. Here is one thing of which we can be certain, kids of all ages look to their parents for acceptance, and lack of acceptance or rejection can result in significant psychological distress. The statistics back this up: 57{0577333bb3a455604d8cc2e627147e6f09bad6acf3cd9976a213fc3d66388fd6} of trans youth with rejecting parents have a suicide attempt as contrasted with 4{0577333bb3a455604d8cc2e627147e6f09bad6acf3cd9976a213fc3d66388fd6} in trans youth with accepting parents (Travers, Bauer, Pyne and Bradley, 2012). It is for this reason alone that I strongly encourage parents to err on the side of being accepting rather than hoping that rejection of an identity will result in child moving off of the identity. This approach never results in changing gender identity, and can instead ruin your relationship with your child and bring about intense psychological pain.

it is important to support your transgender childHere Are the Recommendations That I Make to Parents to Demonstrate Acceptance:

1. Listen With Openness.

Your child is going to be reading your facial expressions and body language looking for signs of acceptance, and it matters that you monitor your reactions. Adolescents have a tendency to over-identify negative emotions, so are very likely to see rejection or negative response in even the smallest facial expressions. Work very hard to stay neutral and supportive.

2. Ask Questions That Are Open-Ended and Meant to Increase Understanding.

Many parents think that they can read their children better than children can read themselves- we have known them longer than they have known themselves! This tendency to mind read is pretty destructive because we will never really know their internal world unless they feel safe to share it with us. Avoid questions that would result in yes/no responses, and stick to questions that will increase your understanding of their worldview. Some good ones would be:

  • Tell me about your journey with your gender.
  • What were some of the thoughts or experiences that led you to this conclusion?
  • How do you view the journey moving forward?
  • What are the ways that I can support you?

my child says they are transgender3. Don’t Have All the Answers.

Many kids can avoid significant distress when they have their parent’s support, but many kids with gender identity changes may still experience psychological distress. Try to follow their lead, and seek professional guidance if there are concerns related to mood or behaviors. It is best to make sure that the treating professional is someone who has experience with treating trans youth.

4. Get Comfortable With Change.

Some kids may feel like it would be best to move forward with gender reassignment, while others may just want to explore which characteristics would make them feel more comfortable in their gender identity. I always agree with social transitioning- asking to be called a different name, changing pronouns, dressing according to identified gender. I am a little slower to support physical changes that can be permanent, because of their permanence. It is unclear how many trans youth may have a gender identity that matches their sex at birth, but some studies have shown that adolescent females are more likely to identify as trans whereas adult males are more likely to identify as trans (Zucker and Lawrence, 2009). You don’t have to figure this out on your own, as it is up to a clinical provider to prescribe any intervention that would result in permanent changes to your child’s body.

5. Get Comfortable With Being an Activist.

Trans youth are much more likely to be the victim of bullying and can be negatively affected by policies in schools. Some schools will battle their usage of the bathroom that matches their identified gender, and other schools may push back on other elements of social transition like chosen name and pronouns. For this reason, your child will need you to be their advocate. For parents who are struggling with acceptance, advocacy can feel like a hard pill to swallow, but this goes back to the basic goal of raising a healthy child; the suicide risk alone makes it better to be more accepting.

it is important to support transgender child6. Move On.

Frankly, the best way to demonstrate acceptance and encourage development is to make gender identity one of the least interesting things about your child. It doesn’t mean that you don’t engage in open conversations, but not every fashion choice or special interest is going to have to do with gender identity. When we are constantly reflecting on gender identity, your child may get defensive and overly entrenched to prove that they are right.

One of the most essential tasks of adolescence is figuring out who we are, and it can take some attempts and exploration to get to a solid place. Your home should always be a safe place for your children, especially if when they are wrestling with identity development.

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