Transgender Children & Youth: Basic Information for Parents, and Caregivers
From the moment you announce your pregnancy, people begin to ask about your child’s biological sex. “Are you having a boy or a girl?” Some people even have “gender reveal” celebrations or parties. It seems from the time our children are very small, our society has overt (as well as covert) rules on interests, activities, and life paths that are suitable for boys and girls. Toys like dolls and trucks have strong gender associations, as do colors like pink and blue. Just by watching commercials, we can observe some very rigid general roles in our culture.
However, research and experience tells us that gender is not experienced in binary terms. Gender exists on a spectrum, with all individuals expressing and identifying with varying degrees of both masculinity and femininity.
Few areas can be more challenging for parents and kids to navigate than when concerns around gender identity or gender expression arise. In these cases, the most important things that parents can do are love their children, support their children, and be open to learning new things without judgment.
What do the terms gender identity and gender expression mean?
Gender identity and expression are part of how we see ourselves, as well as the world around us.
The Human Rights Campaign define gender identity as, “a person’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither.” It is how people perceive themselves and what they call themselves. “One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.” Sometimes, a child born male will perceive themselves as female, and sometimes a child born female will perceive themselves as male.
Gender expression is “the external appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice.”
These behaviors may not always fit the way people typically behave or dress (in terms of masculine or feminine). Sometimes, people even refer to children as “gender creative,” when the child varies between traditional male and female interests and clothing.
Transgender or Gender Expansive is “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.”
Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Being transgender does not mean the person has a mental illness. It means that the way they express their gender is different from their biological sex.
Why Family Support is So Important
For transgender and gender-expansive children and teens, growing up can be isolating, confusing, sad, and frustrating. For these reasons, family support is very, very important. If a child who is gender-expansive does not receive support from their family, many difficult things can result.
Some examples include:
- Substance use and risk-taking
- Social bullying and isolation at school, or with family and friends
- Shame and guilt regarding their identity or expression
- Suicide or suicide attempts or behaviors. In fact, about ½ of students who struggle with issues of gender identity attempt suicide at some point.
- Depression, anxiety, gender dysphoria, or other mental health problems.
- In some cases family rejection or estrangement can result in homelessness, neglect and abuse from other people.
Family support, school support, and peer supports are buffers against bullying, maltreatment and bias outside the home. Research finds that these kinds of buffers help self-esteem, interpersonal functioning, academic performance, and overall mental health. They also protect against depression, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior. For some gender expansive youth, family support can be the difference between life and death, particularly if school support and peer support are also lacking.
Is My Child Transgender?
At some point, all children experiment with behavior associated with different genders.
In fact, developmental experts often recommend that we expose children to a variety of toys and interests. For example, boys will play with dolls, girls may enjoy a race-car track, girls may hate wearing dresses and boys may hate wearing ties. These behaviors do not necessarily mean that a child is gender expansive. However, some children DO identify as another gender than the one they were assigned at birth. When they do, it is not caused by the toys they played with, the clothes they wore, or what their parents did or did not do in their early years. It is just the way they are.
“Gender identity is not caused by the toys kids played with, the clothes kids wore, or what their parents did or did not do in their early years… It is just the way kids are.”Dr. Cindy Anderson
If your child is “consistent, insistent, and persistent” about their transgender identity over time, your child may indeed identify as transgender when they reach adolescence and adulthood.
It also depends on the age of the child. Research tells us that, if during their teen years, children experience a gender identity that is different from their sex assigned at birth, they will keep that gender identity as they reach adulthood. Early in childhood, there is still more variability in gender identity and experimentation with gender expression and gender roles.
That also means it can be tricky to know what to do as a parent in early or middle childhood.
However, even though it may be a challenge, being open and supportive of your child is the most important thing that you can do. You may have to ask yourself, “what does my child need to feel safe and loved in this moment of time?” Often, children who are asking (or trying) to live as a gender different than their assigned sex at birth is that they usually have strong gender dysphoria (sadness about trying to live as the gender assigned to them at birth). Research tells us that children who are more gender dysphoric in childhood are more likely to identify as transgender or gender expansive when they are adolescents and adults.
Before panicking about your child’s behavior or experimentation with gender, you will have to stop and think.
Ask yourself (rationally), “What could be the harm? Is it really that big of a deal?” If you tell yourself, “Of course it is. They may get bullied or embarrassed or people will talk,” you will likely feel more anxious and behave in ways that could cause emotional damage to your child. If you tell yourself, “Experimenting with gender is what s/he needs to do to feel whole, and I can support them the best I know how,” you may feel more confident with your child’s behavior, and will come across as more supportive and loving.
Just because you let your son grow their hair out or wear dresses doesn’t mean he will still want to do this at age 25. He may or may not. Or just because you let your daughter play football or go out for wrestling doesn’t mean that she won’t be able to have a fulfilled life as an adult. Be kind, be supportive, and follow your child’s lead. No matter what gender your child identifies with as an adult, having you as an ally will be the thing that is most important to her future and her health.
Simple Ways to Start Supporting Your Child’s Gender Expression
- Be your child’s advocate –ask that others respect your child’s identity or support your child’s experimentation.
- Educate yourself about the concerns facing transgender youth.
- Encourage your child to stand up for themselves when it is safe to do so.
- Assure your child that he has your unconditional love and support.
- Talk to your child’s school if there is bullying or concerns with social ostracism.
- Find sports and activities that are gender inclusive and comfortable for your child to enjoy.
- Don’t scold or shame your child for experimenting with different behaviors or clothes that are tied to gender.
- Don’t try to force your child to act a certain way with regards to gender expression. It will likely hurt your child’s self-esteem and damage your relationship. Be an advocate instead.
- Your child may choose to use different pronouns. For example, they may want you to say “she” or “they” rather than “he.” Show your support by respecting their pronoun choice.
- If you have concerns, talk to a child psychologist or therapist who is well-trained to work with children with transgender issues. This person can also help you seek out specialty support from other medical professionals who work with these issues, like endocrinologists or physicians in LGBTQ issues. It will be important to ask the health provider about their beliefs and training before you and your child meet with them to make sure they are a good fit for your family.
- If your child seems sad, anxious, or dysphoric about their gender, it will be important that they obtain counseling or psychotherapy from a therapist who is affirming and well-trained in issues related to transgender children.
More information about transgender children and youth:
- The Human Rights Campaign’s Transgender Children and Youth page includes resources for families, community members, school officials and more.
- The American Psychological Association has resources for people who would like to learn more. Visit their page, Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression, to learn more.
- American Academy of Pediatrics has issued statements on protecting transgender youth.
- Trans Youth Equality Foundation provides education, advocacy and support for transgender and gender-expansive young people and their families. Programs include support groups, camps and retreats, and a popular Tumblr blog for youth.
- PFLAG supports the families, friends and allies of LGBTQ people. PFLAG has local chapters across the United States, including groups specifically for families with transgender children.
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