James Byrne, Psychotherapist
Adolescence can be a turbulent time for anyone, there are times when life feels stressful and there are times when you feel like you just do not fit in anywhere, these can be exacerbated when a young person is also trying to figure out their own gender identity, especially when it may be different from the one they were assigned at birth.
It is a sad fact that trans and gender questioning young people can experience a higher incidence of bullying, isolation and in some cases violence, when compared to their cis-gendered peers; oftentimes this can lead to depression, anxiety and generalised unhappiness as well as internalised unhappiness with their gender. This unhappiness may result in using coping mechanisms such as self-harm or substance use to help them cope with these unwanted feelings.
As parents and loved ones there are a few things that can help your child along this journey. Research shows that young people who have been supported and affirmed in their gender identity and expression have, in general, a happier adolescence as opposed to those who have not (1).
Here are some simple strategies for you as you accompany your child on their journey.
Your acceptance and support are crucial for your child on their gender journey. If your child has a fear of a negative reaction or rejection from you it will be a huge obstacle for them in reaching out to you for support. Your child may very well have spent a large amount of time thinking about their gender identity and it is a big step for them to come to you with it. If that step toward you is met with rejection, or doubt-based questioning asking them to prove their gender, it will have a hugely negative and damaging impact on their self-esteem.
Some people believe that being trans is a passing phase they will grow out of, and they treat the child accordingly. This approach undermines the validity of your child’s feelings. It is true that some children who identify as trans later come to a different conclusion about their gender identity, but this is uncommon (2). Even if your child is part of this small group of people, you are doing no harm in accepting their gender identity as it is now.
A thought experiment I use sometimes with parents is asking them to reflect on how they would feel if someone who loved them insisted they were a different gender, that they were called a name or the pronouns were used that were associated with that ‘incorrect’ gender. Inevitably the parents say they would feel distressed. Which is what a child feels when their parents reject their gender identity.
Your child – not you, not a doctor, not me or any amount of information you find on the internet is the expert on how they feel and their life. Accept your child’s gender identity where they are at.
2. Let your child take the driver seat
Every gender journey is as unique as the person who is on it. There may be similarities to others but your child and family’s journey is yours. Do not assume that you child will want to transition in a certain way. Communication is so important and approaching the situation with an open mind is the best way forward. It is important to be patient with your child, when they are ready to talk, they will talk. Remember, they are learning about themselves and do not have all the answers nor may they even know all the questions.
It is also vital to know that not all children and adolescents are able or ready to talk about this at an early age. Just because they didn’t tell you until they were a teenager, does not mean that they are putting it on in any way.
3. Educate yourself
This is as much a journey for you as it is for your child. Find out as much as you can, you may need to be a supportive voice for your child, whether in school, college or in accessing services. There are many resources available including parent support groups, these allow you to learn about gender as well as providing a space for you to ask questions. You may also find it useful to reach out to a therapist who has experience in working with trans youth. They will be able to answer a lot of your questions and advise you on next steps. Remember, it is your job to educate yourself not your child.
4. Don’t intentionally misgender your child.
Many trans people will choose a new name for themselves and refer to their given name as their ‘dead name’ this is very common but can be alarming for a parent to hear; in the early days it is quite common to accidentally misgender or deadname your child, when this happens simply correct yourself. Your child will understand. However, when you intentionally misgender or deadname because you prefer the name, or you are questioning your child’s gender, it damages your relationship. This will lead to an erosion of trust and your child may feel unsafe, as well as feeling dismissed.
5. Getting the right support for you and your child.
Counselling with a suitably experienced and qualified therapist can help your child to navigate some of the more difficult parts of their journey and has been proven to be beneficial. A trans affirming therapist will be able to answer questions your child may have about themselves and they will be able to offer tools to better cope with the obstacles in their path. Some therapists offer extra support for parents and loved ones. There are many groups and organisations that also offer peer support, where you can meet parents who have been on or are on the gender journey with their child. Local LGBTQ centres and online forums may also provide information sessions. These groups can be beneficial as they provide a space where you and your child can connect with others on their own journey.
6. Don’t ‘out’ your child.
Your child has taken a huge step in coming to you and telling you about their gender identity, that does not mean they are ready to tell the rest of the world. Allow your child to tell people at their own pace; remember, they are in the driving seat and leading the process. Even though you think you might be helping your child by telling other people about their gender identity it can put unnecessary pressure on your child.
7. Encourage your child to seek out appropriate peer support.
There are many members of the trans community who have an online presence on the many social media platforms available. They share their own gender journey and offer supportive advice that may help your child be a little more comfortable in themselves.
With support, love and access to resources, your child will have the chance to have a happy and healthy life and the sooner parents and loved ones can demonstrate acceptance towards their trans loved ones, the greater the positive impact it will have on their self-esteem and mental health.
Olson KR, Durwood L, McLaughlin KA. Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities. Pediatrics. 2016;137(3):e20153223 – August 01, 2018
Weir, J. M., Zakama, A., & Rao, U. (2012). Developmental risk I: depression and the developing brain. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 21(2), 237–vii. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2012.01.004
The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, Volume 8, Issue 7, July 2020, Page 568, Journal home page for The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology