Strategies for Supporting a Transgender Child
March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility.
Posted March 17, 2017
Transgender children face uncertain futures. Many wait years to come out, and face isolation, rejection, and even violence. Our current political climate is a harsh one for trans children and their families. Ideally, children facing these struggles will feel comfortable enough to speak to their families but the news can, of course, be tough for parents to take. Even well-meaning parents who wish to support their children may not know how to do so. Here are simple strategies for supporting your transgender child, no matter where they are on their journey.
Accept Your Child’s Identity
Rejecting your child’s identity as trans, or forcing them to “prove” it in some way, can be profoundly damaging. If your child has come forward to share their status as a trans person, they’ve likely spent significant time contemplating this identity. Your child—not you, not a pediatrician, not a psychiatrist, and certainly not any article you find on the Internet—is the best expert on their feelings and life. Believe your child about their status as trans.
Some parents opt to label being trans as a passing phase. Don’t do this. It’s true that some children who identify as trans later change their mind, but this is uncommon. Even if your child is part of this small group, there is no harm in accepting their identity now. Just as you would support your child’s religious views knowing they might change, you should accept their gender identity, which is an even more fundamental component of who they are.
Think for a moment about how you would feel if someone insisted that you were a different sex from what you are, or called you a name or a pronoun associated with that incorrect sex. That is precisely how children feel when their parents reject their gender identity.
Follow Your Child’s Lead
Transgender means many things to many people. Don’t assume that your child will want to transition, wear a certain type of clothing, or change their hobbies. Listen to your child about what being trans means to them, and know that there’s no right way to be trans.
Learn About Gender
Gender and sex are not the same thing. Sex is the biological underpinning of gender, while gender is the social construct. The notion that women wear dresses or have certain personality traits is a product of gender. The fact that most females can get pregnant is sex. Understanding the difference between the two can help you understand how and why a person born as one sex wants to identify as a different gender.
Don’t Misgender or "Dead-Name" Your Child
Misgendering your child is like denying their existence as a person. If you slip up, apologize. But never deliberately misgender a child. Likewise, dead-naming your child is the act of referring to them as their previous name. You might do so accidentally, but never dead-name your child just because you prefer the old name or question your child’s new identity. Doing so is a form of psychological abuse that can erode trust and contribute to the culture of hostility transgender people face.
Don’t Make Gendered Assumptions
A child who now identifies as a girl won’t necessarily want to wear dresses. A boy isn’t necessarily invested in soccer or aggression. These gendered assumptions contribute to the pressure transgendered children face, and also play a role in widespread sexism. The fact that your child identifies as a different gender does not mean they will take on all the stereotypes of that gender. Your child is an individual, so let their individuality lead the way. They will tell you and show you what their new gender means to them.
Don’t Out Your Child
You might be tempted to show solidarity with your child by sharing that they are trans and working to show your support. Don’t turn your child into a prop. They’re a person, just like before, and making a huge display about having a trans child can be hurtful. It can also subject your child to unwanted intrusions into their life. It’s no one’s business that your child is trans until your child opts to share this information.
Similarly, don’t “out” your child. It’s up to your child to determine with whom they want to share their transgender status. Teachers, friends, and grandparents do not need to know until your child is ready to tell them. Give your child control over their own story.
Don’t Assume Transgenderism Demands Treatment
Transgenderism is not a mental illness, and your child’s sense that they identify as another gender does not demand treatment. Therapy can, however, help your child find new ways to cope with the challenges of transgender stigma, so consider sending your child to a transgender-friendly psychotherapist.
Avoid assuming that your child’s transgender identity means they will want surgery or hormonal treatments. While these certainly may be options, avoid pushing them. Many transgender children prefer to live as their chosen gender for many years before pursuing treatment. Treatment can be difficult and expensive, so if your child is comfortable slowly transitioning, there’s nothing wrong with this.
Help Yourself So You Can Better Help Your Child
Transgenderism can be a challenge for families, who may deal with stigma, unkind relatives, and changed visions of their children’s future. Your child’s transition will be hard for them and for you. There is a tremendous mental adjustment that parents of trans children have to make, and you may need to seek your own professional support so that you can cope effectively with this monumental change. You will be able to best help your child if you yourself have come to terms with your child's identity.
There are now at least 1.4 million adults living as transgender. Your child is not alone, and can have a happy, enriched adult life—but only with support. The single best predictor of outcomes in transgender populations is support from families. Offer your child this unconditional support, and watch them flourish into a happy, healthy adult.