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Parenting Transgender Children and Teens

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by LB Hannahs, Director of LGBT Affairs, University of Florida, and Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

As parents, we want our children to be happy, confident, and to feel good about who they are. Of course, there are also bound to be challenges along the way, and some may be unexpected or difficult for parents.

For instance, some families find that their child does not feel comfortable with the biological sex they were assigned at birth. Parents may notice a difference as early as two or three, when a child begins saying he or she wants to be the other gender, or prefers toys, clothes, and interests traditionally associated with the other gender. In other families, parents may not be aware of the issue until a teen hits puberty and behavior and preferences become more clear.

What Does it Mean to be Transgender?

Children and teens like these may be transgender. (It’s important to know that while not all children who express a desire to be a different gender in their youth will grow up to be transgender, many do.) According to the American Psychological Association, transgender people are those whose gender identity (their sense of whether they are male or female) or gender expression (the way they communicate gender through behavior and appearance) does not conform to the sex assigned to them at birth.

Sensitive Parenting Matters

Experts agree that parents should listen when children express these feelings, and not try to push children like these into conforming to their biological sex. Parent also need to know that as with same-sex attraction, there is no evidence that psychotherapy or other treatment can change children’s innate feelings on this issue. (Being transgender does not predict future sexual orientation.)

Some families find it helpful for the child to socially “transition” (to function in society as a member of their chosen gender). With trusted medical counseling, some families also pursue medical and hormonal treatment near or at puberty.

Acceptance Saves Lives

Realizing that a son or daughter is transgender can be difficult for some parents. They may feel concerned about their child’s safety or well-being, feel angry, or worry that they did something wrong.

Tragically, transgender youth are at high risk of suicide, depression, substance abuse, and unsafe sex. This is often due to the pain of family rejection, bullying, and assault. If a child or teen is experiencing depression, anger, or anxiety related to being transgender, getting help for these concerns is crucial. Parents of transgender children also will benefit from access to professionals knowledgeable about transgender issues and from talking to other parents of transgender youth.

The good news is that transgender teens and youth who report feeling accepted for who they are have higher self-esteem, are at less risk of dangerous behavior, and feel more hopeful about their futures. For instance, one small study in Canada found that transgender teens whose parents were strongly supportive of them had 93% fewer suicide attempts than those whose parents did not support them.

Support is Available

Parenting a child who is transgender may be challenging at times. Fortunately, transgender children and teens whose parents consistently express love, support, and acceptance can fare very well. Awareness and understanding of this issue are increasing all the time, and families today can seek out and find assistance and support. For more resources and information, visit the sites in Further Reading.

(Photo credit: Group Picture At Jillian’s Party by Joe ShlabotnikCC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading

TransYouth Family Allies: For Parents

American Psychological Association: Answers to Your Questions about Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression

Find your local PFLAG chapter

How Do I Know if My Child is Transgender?

Gender Spectrum: Parenting and Family

References:

Child Trends. (2015). Understanding transgender youth. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/understanding-transgender-youth/

Gender Spectrum. (n.d.) Understanding children’s gender. Retrieved from https://www.genderspectrum.org/explore-topics/parenting-and-family/

National Association of Social Workers. How do I know if my child is transgender? Retrieved from http://www.helpstartshere.org/kids-and-families/early-childhood-development/how-do-i-know-if-my-child-is-transgender.html

TransPulse. (2012) Impacts of strong parental support for trans youth. Retrieved from http://transpulseproject.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Impacts-of-Strong-Parental-Support-for-Trans-Youth-vFINAL.pdf

TransYouth Family Allies. (n.d.) For parents. Retrieved from http://www.imatyfa.org/resources/parents/

TransYouth Family Allies. (n.d.) Endocrine treatment of transsexual persons. Retrieved from http://www.imatyfa.org/resources/healthcare-practitioners/endocrine-treatment-of-transsexual-persons/