Your daughter has always hated dresses and shunned Barbies, but lately she’s been begging you for a short haircut and just seems, well, not comfortable in her own skin. Is this common? Not common? Something to think seriously about or something to chalk up to another phase?
Parenting is full of challenges, but when kids don’t feel like themselves it can be especially difficult to know how to be there for them—which is, of course, the most important thing.
Here’s a breakdown of how to talk to, support and empower a transgender child, according to experts and folks who have been through it.
What Does It Mean to Be Transgender?
Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s important to know that transgender identification is independent of sexual orientation. Per Reena B. Patel (LEP, BCBA), parenting expert and psychologist, about one percent of the U.S. population identifies as transgender, and gender non-conforming identities (as well as queer affirming identities) are becoming increasingly prevalent among today’s youth.
Another important thing to know is that children are naturally curious, and many kids will engage in behavior that challenges gender norms and stereotypes without identifying as transgender. However, Patel tells us that some signs that may indicate your child is transgender include: telling you that they’re not the gender that they look like on the outside, getting upset if anyone tells them that they are a certain gender, expressing that they really want to wear the clothing of the opposite sex or asking to play on an opposite sex sports team.
“Jacob was around two-and-a-half years old when he first told us he was a boy,” remembers Mimi Lemay, author of What We Will Become: A Mother, A Son and a Journey of Transformation and member of Human Rights Campaign's Parents for Transgender Equality Council. “The first time, there was no anger or fear. But when he continued to tell us many more times after that and we replied, ‘You are a girl,’ he became angrier and more upset about the topic. We were confused and increasingly concerned. We spent the next few months trying to help him understand what we thought was pretend. I regret all the time we spent not fully supporting Jacob’s identity.”
There are no exact sets of behavior or rules for determining whether a child is transgender but in general, experts look to see if the child is consistent, insistent and persistent about their transgender identity. You can find more information about this on Human Rights Campaign’s Transgender Children and Youth page.
How Parents Can Support Their Child *Before* Having a Conversation about Transgender Identity
Be mindful of ‘genderfying’ early on
“Even before a child enters the world, if a parent knows that they're a boy or girl, we create this schema,” says Patel. We ‘genderfy’ them (think: buying blue clothes for a boy or dolls for a girl) without even giving them a chance to explore. And while Patel acknowledges that there’s been a shift in recent years (with more neutral tones of clothing, etc.), she says that there is still a long way to go. This ‘genderfying’ only continues when a child goes to school, and educators and parents reinforce children to play with certain items (think: trucks for boys and Barbies for girls). “What we really need to start seeing is letting children gravitate towards what they want to go to and then encouraging them to stay there and use it,” says Patel.
Allow kids to explore (while letting them know that people may think differently)
Let’s say that your child wants to do something that challenges gender stereotypes (say, a boy wearing a dress or a girl cutting her hair short). Patel stresses that it’s important to let them do so, but to also let them know (in a non-negative way) that people may look at that differently.
Here’s what that might look like: “You want to wear a dress? OK, you can wear a dress. Just so you know, sometimes you might see more girls wearing dresses than boys. But that’s OK to be different—you are who you are, and I love you for that.”
Keep these conversations matter of fact and use the word ‘sometimes,’ says the expert.
Don’t be afraid to use the appropriate language
“Introduce the word gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender—start to teach those terms,” advises Patel. She doesn’t have a specific age when parents should do so, noting that parents should be mindful of their child developmentally and remember that they know their child best. “But don't be afraid to use the words that are defined out there in our society that represent a certain person.”
Ask your child what they want
Parents are the ones who tend to take out their kids’ clothes, pick out their toys and sign them up for activities. But Patel says it’s important to ask children what it is they want and to give them a choice. “Stay away from gender stereotypes,” she says. We mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating—let kids choose and explore for themselves.
How to Be Supportive When You Think Your Child Is Transgender or They Tell You That They Are
Take time to process your own feelings
Nicole Nina, a psychotherapist and social worker, was driving her 13-year-old child home from school when he came out to her. “You just want to protect your kid from the world,” Nina tells us. “And I was so worried about how our immediate friends and family were going to react, and how the world was going to react. I’m a social worker and I have dealt with this a lot in my professional career, but it’s so different when it’s your own kid,” she adds.
“Oftentimes parents are confused themselves or they feel like they've done something wrong,” says Patel. They may also be worried about how the world will respond to their child. If possible, take some time for yourself to address your own emotions before talking to your child, she advises, since projecting these feelings onto your child is not helpful or supportive. Parents can (and should) seek help to process these feelings from a therapist or using one of the resources listed below.
Don’t dismiss it as ‘a phase’
“Jacob went through many phases in his toddler and preschool years: loving notebooks, his obsession with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a dog sweater that he wore for six months,” says Lemay. “This was different. First of all, it never waned or went away. He knew he was a boy and articulated it clearly for nearly a year and a half before the transition. Secondly, not being allowed to live as the boy he knew clearly impacted his mental health. He was increasingly withdrawn, angry and sad about this topic. He was uncomfortable in his skin, and once asked us: ‘Why did God make me this way? Is He stupid?’ Much of his anxiety and sadness dissolved almost instantly with his transition a little after he 4 years old, with a new name, new pronouns and the short haircut he had been asking for. He is now 11 years old and has never wavered in his male identity.”
Talk to your child and validate their feelings
If your kid hasn’t come out as transgender, but it’s a way you think they might identify, ask them about it. Here’s what that might look like: “I’ve been noticing that you’re gravitating towards [insert behavior] or asking questions about [insert topic]—is this what makes you feel you? It’s important that we all feel included and that you feel like you belong.”
If a child shares with you that they are transgender, parents should validate what their child is feeling, even at an early age. Let them know that you believe them and that you love them, regardless of their gender identity. After your child, let’s say one who was assigned male at birth tells you that they are a girl, you could respond with: “What does that mean for you?” with follow-up questions about what pronouns they’re comfortable with, if they’d like to start using a different name and if there are any changes they would like to make either at home or outside of the home.” You could also let them know that you’d like to explore this more together.
“It’s really important to explain that we’re in a world where you don’t have to conform to a certain identity or expression,” says Patel. You could use the word gender-creative if it’s helpful.
Patel also stresses that parents should ask their kids about what happens at school. “We want to make sure that they’re not being ostracized or bullied and that they feel like they can be themselves.”
Know that it’s not a one-and-done conversation
When transgender teenager Adonis came out to his parents, their laid-back reaction was actually incredibly helpful, he says. “I feel like that is something that some parents have a hard time doing. I was so nervous but my parents didn’t make it into a big deal and that was really, really good about it.”
“Just because you’re starting to have the dialogue doesn’t mean you’re done and that you have to have it all figured out,” says Patel. “Just plant the seed, have a little bit of dialogue and then maybe you come back to it a little bit later, but give them a safe space to share.”
Your child is going to develop a better understanding after they've taken time to process it themselves, which is why it's important to continue the conversation.
“It’s OK to be scared and it’s OK to feel some confusion and loss,” says Lemay. “But at the end of the day, showing your child that you love them, unconditionally, and that you are proud that they are so brave to come out to you and live authentically will deepen the bonds between you and give them hope for a brighter future. The world is coming along, but for now, you may need to be your child's fiercest advocate. Educating yourself on what it means to be trans or non-binary is the first and most important step.”
Speak with your medical provider
“When children hit puberty, it's going to be tough for transgender or non-conforming kids,” explains Patel “As you get closer to puberty, I think it's important to talk to a doctor about the possibility of puberty blockers and other trans gender medical care that they should start to tap into.”
Be your child’s advocate
Follow their lead when it comes to sharing information—allow them to determine with whom and when they want to share their transgender status. For Adonis, he wasn’t comfortable telling other family members about his new name and pronoun directly, preferring that his mother have that conversation with them instead.
If, however, they have shared this with teachers, friends and other family members, be clear with those people about what your child wants to be called and how they can respect your child’s identity because using the correct language is very important. “I think the whole reason some of my favorite teachers were my favorite is because they called me the right name and used the right pronoun,” says Adonis.
And one last thing...
“This is such a hard topic for so many parents and it has the ability to estrange them from their child,” says Nina. “I don't know that most parents realize how important this is to their children.”
We love these words of advice from pediatrician Maureen Connolly, M.D.: “The key is to give all young people the opportunity to explore their gender identity in a non-stigmatizing way,” she says. “The trans youths I see are ultimately going to make the world a better place by creating a generation of people who are more accepting. This willingness to stand up for who they are will hopefully move our society forward.”
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