Your love for your child is the greatest gift you can give them … and an essential part of their well-being.
“I think my child may be transgender … what should I do?”
First and foremost, you are not alone. Parents of transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) children and adolescents often come to me with a wide variety of emotions. These include grief, sadness, anger, confusion, fear and worry.
At times, the questions and concerns swirling around in your mind can become overwhelming. “Are they really transgender? Is this just a phase? What am I/we supposed to do? Where do we begin?”
There are many resources to help support you and your family on this journey.
What is Gender Identity?
Gender identity is one’s internal sense of their gender. Everyone has a gender identity. We don’t know one’s gender identity by what they look like on the outside. When we label someone as “boy/girl” and “man/woman,” we are basing this on someone’s external appearances, their gender expression and/or gender presentation.
Gender expression and gender presentation are how people express their internal gendered selves to the external world: things like clothes, hairstyle, makeup, and mannerisms. In order for a transgender or GNC individual to feel like their authentic selves, they may make changes to how they look on the “outside” to match what they feel on the “inside.”
When unaddressed, transgender and GNC people may experience mental health issues such as sadness, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Gender dysphoria arises due to the misalignment between one’s internal gender identity and their assigned sex and gender at birth, and ways in which the external world perceives them.
Is My Child Too Young to Know Their Gender Identity?
No. Children are never too young to know themselves.
Children come out at any age and stage of identity development. Some children will begin asserting that their assigned sex and gender are incorrect as soon as they begin speaking, e.g “Mommy/Daddy, I’m not a girl, I’m a boy!” and may be consistent and persistent about their gender identity well into puberty and adolescence.
Others may begin experiencing distress during puberty, and will come out in early/late adolescence, thus “surprising” parents. No matter the window of one’s coming out, there is no “right or wrong” time with self-discovery and coming out — it takes some people time to understand themselves, regardless of their age.
The Importance of Accepting Your Transgender and GNC Child
Sometimes it takes a leap of faith, a lot of love, and learning to accept your children and support them in being their authentic selves. I have yet to work with a parent who has regretted their decision to support their child’s transition.
Once parents are able to see the happiness and joy on their child’s face, parents are resolute in their position that they did right by their child. In discussing this process with one family, my client’s father reflected to me,
“Once we said ‘yes,’ our child blossomed. We have a happy and healthy child. What more could we ask for? They don’t have cancer, they’re not ill. They’re transgender. What’s the big deal?”
What Should I Do Next?
Take a breath. Talk to people you trust. And remember: this is still the same child you have loved their whole life, before and after their gender transition. This is just an opportunity for your child to become a happier and healthier version of themselves.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of sobering statistics regarding the possible outcomes for transgender youth who are not supported and affirmed by their parents.
Children and youth whose families are not accepting, or who interfere with needed emotional and medical support, statistically have higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal attempts, suicide, high school dropout, low self-esteem, homelessness and substance use issues, compared to their peers.
Not responding to your child’s needs or dismissing them will backfire. Family matters, and family acceptance is crucial to your child’s well-being and success.
How Do I Help My Child on Their Journey
There’s not a prescribed path. However, your child most likely will have a lot of thoughts, feelings, and opinions about their gender transition, so begin by talking to them and asking them what they want!
Helpful things to ask are:
- Do you want to use different gender pronouns?
- Is there a new name that you feel fits you better?
- Do you want to change your hairstyle?
- Do you want different clothes?
- Do you want to change what your bedroom looks like?
- Do you want to come out at school?
- Who do you want to tell at school?
- Do you want to let our friends and family know?
- Which bathrooms or locker rooms do you feel most comfortable using?
All of these questions help guide your child’s “social transition” — ways in which your child may want to make changes to their gender expression and presentation to better align with their gender identity.
Medical Options For Transgender Children
Medical transitions are an option depending on the age of your child (hormone blockers and cross-sex hormones), and can be extremely helpful to ensure your child doesn’t experience an unwanted puberty and undesired secondary sex characteristics.
If your child is experiencing body hatred, distress or fear about puberty, these are indicators that medical interventions such as hormone/puberty blockers (which are reversible and relatively low-risk) and cross-sex hormones (partially reversible, with some risk and potential side effects) may be helpful.
Together with your gender therapist, pediatric endocrinologist, and pediatrician (when appropriate), you will be able to explore these questions and develop a plan, in a thoughtful and intentional manner, to best support your child’s well-being and care.
How Do We Tell Our Family and Friends?
Coming out to family, friends, and community (neighborhood, school, work, places of worship) can be difficult and intimidating. It can also be quite healing and joyful. I recommend parents talk with their child about who they want to come out to, when to come out to others (if at all), and how you or your child want to inform others.
Coming out is a family process – not only has your child taken this courageous step to tell you, but now it’s your turn to consider what this means for you and your extended network. It’s normal to experience conflict during this stage. A gender therapist will be able to help guide this process for you and your family in a safe and nonjudgmental manner.
Most Importantly, Love Your Child
Your child needs you right now … possibly more than ever. Your love and acceptance will make all the difference to their well-being and success. Listen to your child. Ask questions. Read, learn and seek your own support.
Resources for Parents of Transgender Children
- Gender Born, Gender Made (BOOK)
- The Gender Creative Child (BOOK)
- The Transgender Child (BOOK)
- The Gender Quest Workbook (BOOK)
- Gender Spectrum (ORGANIZATION)
- PFLAG (ORGANIZATION)
- GLSEN (ORGANIZATION)
- Transgender Law Center (LEGAL RESOURCE)
- UCSF Center of Excellence for Transgender Health (LOCAL HEALTHCARE)
About the Author
Jillian Goldstein, LCSW is a psychotherapist at Well Clinic, specializing in gender identity, LGBTQ issues, anxiety and trauma.