If you have a transgender child, the process of exploring and becoming their true selves affects the entire family. Supporting your child at every step is important to their emotional, social and physical wellbeing. Aude Henin, PhD, co-director of the Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC), shares how you can become your child’s best advocate throughout their transgender journey.
What Does Transgender Mean?
Transgender is a general term for people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender is a label that a person assigns to themselves. It is not imposed on them by others.
What Does Cisgender Mean?
Cisgender is a term used when a person’s gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth.
How Common Is Being Transgender?
Being transgender is much more common than you might think! There are about 1.4 million people in the United States who identify as transgender, or about 0.6 percent of the population.
How Does a Person Know if They Are Transgender?
A person usually knows that they are transgender from a young age, especially when the feelings are persistent, consistent and occur over a prolonged period of time. In toddlers, the idea of gender identity is very fluid. You might see little boys dressing up in their mother’s shoes or little girls playing with toy trucks. This does not mean that they are transgender – they are simply exploring who they are and the world around them. In preschool-age, children are more aware of their bodies and their gender identity becomes more stable. By the teenage years, a person usually has a firm sense of their gender identity. At that age, there can be a sense of conflict between the true self and the false self. The true self is always there on the inside, but the person might feel pressured to show their false self in certain situations.
Is Being Transgender a Phase?
Being transgender is not a phase. Although every child begins to explore their gender identity at a very young age, even as young as age 2, transgender children tend to be “persistent, consistent and insistent” in expressing their gender identity. All families should give children the space and time to explore who they are in healthy and positive ways, regardless of whether the child is transgender or not.
Do I Need to Cure or Fix My Transgender Child?
No. Being transgender is not a disease or something that needs to be cured. It is a normal human experience. Being transgender is not anyone’s fault. It is not caused by trauma or how you raise your child. Forcing your child to live as the gender they were assigned at birth will not prevent your child from being transgender. But it can cause a lot of emotional pain and lead to emotional challenges as your child gets older.
What is Gender Dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is when a person feels as though their physical body does not match their gender identity. It can be a very distressing experience that is felt by many, but not all transgender people. For example, someone may feel that their body is “wrong” and feel that they hate their body. Another example of gender dysphoria is when a person goes through puberty that does not match their gender identity.
What Is a Transition?
A transition in terms of a person’s transgender journey is when they make social, emotional and physical changes to become who they are on the inside. This can take years. Typically, a social transition happens first. This is when a person starts to live their live as their true self on the outside. Later, a person can decide if they want to start hormone treatment, have surgery or have other medical treatments to change their physical appearance. Every transition has multiple stages. How and when a person transitions depends on their personal needs and wants.
How Can I Support My Transgender Child?
There are many ways you can support your child on their transgender journey:
- Accept and love your child for who they are. Know that there is nothing wrong with them and that you did not cause them to be transgender. Acceptance means coming to terms with who your child is, regardless of your own feelings or opinions.
- Know that your transgender child can have a healthy, happy, and loving future. Communicate this to your child on a regular basis.
Support for Your Child
- Let your child “come out” on their own terms and in their own way. Coming out is when a person is open about their gender identity with family, friends and the world around them. Coming out is a personal and sometimes difficult choice. There is no right or wrong way to do it.
- Ask your child how you should refer to them. Do they prefer pronouns like “his/him,” “she/her” or something different?
- Find transgender role models and highlight them to your child. It is important for children to read about other transgender kids and see other people like them so they do not feel alone.
- Become your child’s best advocate. Make sure they are supported as much as possible from family, friends and in your community. Get them the medical care and emotional support they need. Transgender children with supportive families do much better than those who are not.
Support for Yourself and Your Family
- Get support for yourself, your child and your family. Coming out is process that affects the entire family. You might feel anxiety, sadness, confusion, anger or relief at different times. These feelings are normal. It is important that you find support from friends, family, your doctor or other people you trust.
Judgments and Mistakes
- If you make a mistake (for example, calling your child by the wrong name), apologize.
- Acknowledge and show compassion for yourself for any judgments and biases you might have. Having judgments does not make you a bad parent or a bad person. The first step toward change is accepting that you might have certain thoughts or judgments about your child or various parts of their transgender journey. Then, be gentle but firm with yourself in working on these biases.
- Catch yourself when you might use language specific to certain genders, especially negative stereotypes. This can include expressions like “Man up!” or “You run like a girl.”
- Set age-appropriate limits for your child. Allow your child to explore and express their gender identity in ways that appropriate for their age and developmental level. All children, regardless of their gender identity, need to understand certain boundaries.
There Are Certain People in My Family or Community Who Are Not Supportive. What Can I Do to Help?
- Educate people who are willing to learn. Some people may be uncomfortable with someone who is transgender because it is new to them. With accurate, ongoing information and guidance, they can come to appreciate and support your child.
- Gently but firmly correct people when they use incorrect names or pronouns.
- Limit how much time your child spends around hateful people and people who do not accept your child. If your child feels upset, tell them it is okay to be upset and that they can come to you with any concerns.
- Educate yourself about your child’s legal rights. For example, in Massachusetts there are laws in place to protect transgender children from discrimination in schools and other public places.
- Develop a network of resources, including other families with transgender children and organizations that support transgender youth. There are many opportunities to brainstorm ideas and get support.
- Reach out to your child’s care team with questions or concerns.
Important Words to Know
What Are the Differences Among Sex, Gender Identity and Gender Expression?
Sex, gender and gender identity might sound similar, but they are actually very different terms.
- Sex refers to the biology (chromosomes [DNA], genitalia and hormones) that a person is born with
- Gender identity refers to how a person identifies, such as male, female, transgender or a number of other terms
- Gender expression refers to how a person expresses their gender through their appearance (clothing, hair, makeup, etc.), behavior, names, etc.
The language around gender changes all the time. If you are not sure what to call someone, just ask! Gender was once referred to as binary, or simply male and female. This is not true anymore. Gender is a spectrum and there are many terms a person can use to refer to their gender. Gender is also a lifelong process of self-discovery and expression.