Everyone has heard the saying “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls.” That is not exactly true, anymore. Some parents have discovered that, despite thinking their child was one gender, that child actually feels, deep down inside, that they are another gender, or even more than one gender.
A parent’s reaction to their child coming out as transgender is very important in determining the track their relationship with that child will take. This is especially difficult for parents who feel blindsided, or that they had no “warning” that their child was going to make the announcement that they weren’t the gender the parents felt they were born with. But the way we, as parents, react to a child saying “I’m trans” paves the way for the future relationship with that child.
Statistics on the numbers of transgender children are difficult to determine, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not collect information on the numbers of transgender children in each state, just adults. An estimate by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law says that, as of 2017, 0.7 percent of 13-to 17-year olds in the United States identify as transgender – this amounts to about 150,000 teenagers. A recent poll, according to the Human Rights Campaign, says that about three percent of adolescents and teens identify as transgender or non-binary. The real numbers are likely higher, especially as not all children and teens who identify as transgender have come out publicly.
Transgender youth are at a high risk of suicide, compared to non-transgender peers. The Williams Institute noted that 30 percent of transgender youth attempted suicide in 2020. Having positive experiences such as family and social support greatly reduce the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and attempts in transgender youth. This is just one reason why parental reaction and acceptance when your child comes out as transgender is so important. As many parents have noted, “I’d rather have a transgender child than a dead child.”
But What If It’s a Phase?
The first thought that goes through many parents’ minds when a child says “I’m transgender” is, “this is just a phase.” No matter the age of your child when they tell you they are trans, that is inevitably going to be one of the primary thoughts you have. If your child is very young, you might think they are just experimenting with gender and that this will pass. If your child is an adolescent going through puberty, you might think they are confused and that this will pass. Although you might have such thoughts, do not vocalize these thoughts to your transgender child, as they will take your “this will pass” feelings as negating their feelings of being a different gender. It’s ok to think whatever you must think – just don’t say it out loud.
The Human Rights Campaign notes that the general rule of thumb in determining if a child is transgender or non-binary (rather than gender variant or gender nonconforming) is if the child is consistent, insistent, and persistent about their transgender identity. A child who is assigned male at birth wanting to wear dresses once or twice is likely not transgender. If that same child repeatedly insists for months or years that she is a girl, she probably is transgender. A child who is non-binary, or feels that they are neither male nor female, but maybe a bit of both, may not know how to express this feeling, so it might be harder for parents to grasp.
Gender Identity vs. Sexual Orientation
When a child comes out to a parent as trans, some parents will think, “oh, you’re not really transgender, you must be bisexual, gay or lesbian instead.” (Some parents will even wish this for their child, as being bisexual, gay or lesbian is more accepted in today’s society). The truth is, gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate and different things. Being gay or lesbian defines one’s sexual orientation, and simply identifies the gender to whom you are attracted. Being transgender, however, means that your gender identity differs from the gender you were assigned at birth. This can become even more confusing for parents, as some transgender people also identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual.
If your child is transgender, they will likely be diagnosed with gender dysphoria. This term is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as clinically significant psychological distress resulting from an incongruence between a person’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity. It may develop in childhood but might not be experienced until later in life.
Being transgender is not a mental illness, but the gender dysphoria, or disconnect that some transgender people experience between their sex assigned at birth and gender identity, is a psychiatric diagnosis. Not all transgender people feel gender dysphoria, but the term was primarily developed to allow insurance companies to cover gender-affirming care for transgender individuals. (This includes taking hormones, hormone blockers, and gender-affirming surgery).
Can I Do Anything to Change My Child?
You should never try to change your child’s gender identity in any way, through punishment, denial, reparative therapy or any other technique. This can cause permanent damage to your child’s mental health, and can irreparably harm or break your relationship with your child.
It doesn’t matter what age your child is when they come out – young, teenager, or older. Some people realize that their gender identity differs from their birth gender earlier than others. Some might have known for a while but have been afraid to come out to you or anyone else, fearing rejection.
How Can I Support My Transgender Child?
The best thing that you, as a parent, can do for your transgender child is to support them, no matter what. Here are some ways that you can do that:
- Always use the pronouns and name corresponding to your child’s gender identity. If they tell you they want to go by a new name, respect their wishes and always use that name when referring to them, when talking to them and when talking about them to others.
- Advocate for your child. If you see transphobia occurring anywhere, call it out. Ask others around you to respect your child’s gender identity.
- Educate yourself about concerns that transgender youth and adults face
- Educate your child’s school. Learn what schools should be doing to support your child and speak with the officials there to make sure that they are doing that.
- Encourage your child to stand up for themselves when it is safe to do so. Make sure that they know how to set boundaries when necessary.
- Always assure your child that they have your unconditional love and support.
If your child has come out to you as transgender, or if you think your child might be transgender, the best thing to do next is to consult a gender therapist. The Human Rights Campaign has compiled a list of gender clinics for children and adolescents here.