6 Tips for Understanding and Raising a Transgender Child

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by: Erin Dower
Learning that your child is transgender can bring on a range of emotions — from confusion and grief to anger and fear — and will likely leave you with many questions. Will your child be safe? How will this change the dynamic of your family? Many parents arrive at this uncertain juncture knowing very little about what being transgender entails. Learn more about what it means to be transgender and what you can do to help your child thrive. With the right resources and support, transgender children can lead happy, healthy, successful lives.
diverse, transgender children playing
Learn About Gender Identity and Diversity
It's common for parents of transgender kids to feel lingering confusion about their child's gender identity and to get questions about it from friends, relatives, teachers, and acquaintances. GenderSpectrum.org — a nonprofit resource for "raising children who don't neatly fit into male or female boxes" — says that many people think of "sex" (the biological determination of boy or girl, related to one's physical anatomy) and "gender" (one's internal sense of self as male or female) as interchangeable. Think about it: wearing nail polish or climbing trees conjures up either "girl" or "boy" in our minds because of the rigid, oversimplified notion that gender=sex. In fact, gender is far more complicated and diverse than just "boy" or "girl" and should be considered more of a spectrum. Some people firmly identify as male or female, while others identify somewhere along the spectrum, or more with the opposite sex.

A transgender person is someone whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth. As GenderSpectrum.org explains, a transgender child will assert their gender firmly over time (for example, stating "I'm a girl" from age 4 on, for many years, despite having male genitalia), and "will insist that they are in the wrong body or that God made a mistake [in assigning their body parts]."

Trans is an accepted shorthand term for transgender. A transgender girl, or transgirl, is a person who was born with male genitalia but identifies as female. A transgender boy, or transboy, is someone who was born with female genitalia but identifies as male. Genderqueer refers to someone who identifies as neither entirely male nor entirely female. Transsexual is an older term for transgender that is being replaced because it is thought to sound overly clinical.

Meanwhile, a gender-nonconforming person is someone whose behaviors and interests — in things such as clothing and toys — don't match societal expectations for their biological sex. Gender-nonconforming children are less adamant about stating their gender than transgender children, but "will stubbornly assert what toys they do and don't like, clothes they will and won't wear, or activities they do or don't prefer irrespective of their assigned gender," GenderSpectrum.org says. For more information on determining whether your child is transgender or gender-nonconforming, the possible road ahead, and what specific support your child needs, read The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals.

While transgender people are considered part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community, gender identity is different from sexual orientation; transgender children may grow up to be straight, gay, or bisexual, just like anyone else. Read more about transgender terminology and frequently asked questions at TransEquality.org.

preschool child playing in rain
Give Your Child Freedom to Explore Gender
Whatever your child's age, give them time and space to express their gender. There's no quick and easy answer to the question "Is my child transgender?" nor a precise plan of action if your child is transgender. "Do not hold them back or push them forward before they know who they are," family psychotherapist Jean Malpas tells The Atlantic. "Let them show you how they see themselves and who they are becoming. To the extent that it is safe and acceptable for everyone at home, let them decide on what clothes they wear and what toys they pick."

Most children have a sense of their gender identity between ages 2 and 4, and most will declare early on "I'm a boy" or "I'm a girl." If your young child frequently and consistently expresses the opposite gender from what's expected (for example, your son wants to wear hair accessories every day, or your daughter always asks to wear boys' underwear), it may be tempting to brush off your child's behavior or statements as "confusion" or "just a phase." But children who are persistent in their behavior and statements are usually expressing their true gender and want to be taken seriously. Avoid trying to influence or "treat" your child's gender identity. Research shows that gender is "hardwired" in the brain and is not a mental or physical illness — or a result of something a parent did or did not do (for example, getting a divorce or using a certain parenting style).

Only time will tell if your transgender child wants to "transition" (outwardly live in accordance with their gender identity — adopting their preferred clothing style, hairstyle, name, and pronoun).

teacher watching over trans student
Build a Team for Your Child
If you suspect or know that your child is transgender, talk with your pediatrician (or another qualified physician or therapist) about it and how to support your child. Work only with professionals who affirm your child's gender identity and don't try to change it. Many transgender people develop depression or experience severe emotional distress about expressing their gender identity, and this can happen at any age. When a person's feelings of depression or frustration about their gender rise to clinically significant levels, a doctor may diagnose them as having gender identity disorder (GID) or gender dysphoria. While gender identity is not a mental or physical illness, the classification of GID gives a person access to specific health care aimed at helping transgender people. Qualified healthcare professionals can advise you in helping your child transition into their true gender identity according to internationally recognized protocols developed by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

In addition to finding doctors and counselors who can help your child, carefully find allies within your family, school, and community. Encourage people in your child's life to read The Transgender Child and other resources. Meanwhile, be sure to ask everyone in contact with your child who knows they are transgender or transitioning to keep the information completely private for as long as you and your child wish, explaining that it's a matter of protecting your child against bullying and physical or emotional harm.

mother protecting child
Show Unconditional Love and Support
Children who are transgender or gender-nonconforming face a tough road ahead, with potentially harsh treatment by their peers, school, relatives, and the general public. What they need most is unwavering love and support from their parents and family. You may feel like you're on an emotional rollercoaster, but try to remain calm, patient, and present for your child. Avoid taking your emotions out on your child, who may already be depressed or struggling. Studies have shown that children are happier and healthier when their parents support their gender expression. As one parent tells CNN in this video on transgender youth: "I advise you to love your kids and try to understand them and be on their side, because it's hard fighting that battle alone."

Some transgender children turn to self-harm and even attempt suicide due to depression related to their gender-identity struggle. Lambda Legal, an organization focused on protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ people, says that transgender youth also have a high rate of homelessness because of lack of parental support (financial, emotional, or both). Knowing the stakes are high, unconditional love is the obvious choice for more and more parents of transgender children. Once you commit to supporting your child's gender identity, you may feel a weight has been lifted in your life.

middle school child being bullied
Protect Your Child's Rights and Safety
Unfortunately, many transgender children are teased, bullied, or abused. Lambda Legal says that many transgender youth drop out of school because of mistreatment by peers and even adults. Watch your child closely for signs of bullying, and check in frequently with your child's teachers about your child's treatment and behavior in school. Ask your child's school to take a no-tolerance approach to teasing and bullying and to have students sign an anti-bullying pledge.

Read up on your state's laws against bullying in school, cyberbullying, and gender-related harassment. Know that no matter where you live in the U.S., your child is entitled to equal protection under the law, according to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Transgender youth also have the right to insist their school and community refer to them by their chosen name and pronoun. Learn more in Lambda Legal's Transgender Rights Toolkit.

Some parents choose to change schools — usually to more diverse and accepting communities — once their child has transitioned gender-wise to help protect their child from scrutiny. "It is important that transgender/gender-nonconforming youth be placed in schools that will affirm their identities," Lambda Legal says. "Be prepared to advocate on behalf of transgender youth to ensure that their gender identity is respected. Work with school staff to address use of names and pronouns, clothing and grooming options, bathroom and locker room use and other accommodations." Schools should accommodate children using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, and provide access to private, single-user bathrooms and changing areas if a child feels unsafe using group bathrooms and locker rooms. If you feel your child has experienced discrimination, visit LambdaLegal.org/help.

happy transgender teens
Find Transgender Support Groups and Resources
Studies have shown that parental coaching and education, parent support groups, and child and family therapy can help families navigate a transgender child's needs and transition. TransActive Gender Center says that it is common for parents to feel "at risk of 'losing their son' or 'losing their daughter' as a result of the child's gender identity and expression." Your family members and friends may feel similar grief and confusion, and resist accepting a child's gender identity and decision to transition. Couples' or family counseling may help during this difficult time. Point family members and friends to educational resources that will help them understand.

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