What we know: transgender persons have higher incidence of depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, assault. The media has had story after story of transgender persons being treated horribly. Identifying as a different gender than what was assigned at birth is hard. Parents and family have to manage changed expectations and it can be difficult to ‘get it right’ (i.e. say your child’s preferred name, use their preferred pronoun, and accept that the baby you were raising as one gender is different than what was anticipated).
A research study was released in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in March 2016 that is very encouraging for parents of transgender youth. In the study, researcher recruited children who identified as opposite of their natal sex in daily life. They did not include gender fluid youth. Children used pronouns that matched their identified gender, presented as the identified gender in all contexts (such as school, home, in public), and were ages 3-12 years. These transgender children who were supported in their identity by their families did not have differences in depression when compared to controls (controls included siblings and a group of gender and age-matched peers).
So what does this mean for parents?
First, there is no evidence that having a transgender child is in any way related to parenting.
Next, it is normal to feel a variety of emotions when learning a child identifies as a gender different from one assigned at birth: confused, sad, surprised… all can be normal emotions for parents to experience.
Parents may not understand terminology or know the ins and outs of gender affirming health care. But what seems to be most important is to support your child in however they identify.
Support your child early. Don’t use the ‘wait and see’ approach to parenting. Instead, offer gender affirming support. Some children may not continue to identify as transgender individuals and others may persist. However, waiting to see if a child’s gender identity changes, while doing nothing, can be just as harmful (in terms of long-term sequelae such as depression and anxiety) as being unsupportive.
So how can a parent be supportive of a transgender child?
Allow your child/teen to dress in clothing consistent with their preferred gender
Use haircuts or hairstyles consistent with your child/teen’s preferred gender
Use your child’s preferred name and pronouns
Have open communication – check in with your child/teen regularly about what’s happening at school, in their social networks, and their interests. Don’t ignore signs of bullying (in-person or cyber) and/or harassment. Talk openly about preferred names/pronouns.
Talk with a health care team experienced in working with transgender youth (this may include a therapist, medical provider, and school staff).
Join a local PFLAG chapter or look for other parents in your community or virtually for support.
This is not an exhaustive list. If parents or teens have suggestions on how family members can offer support, please share!