How to Support the Transgender Kid in Your Life
If you are being supportive of a friend or, family member who is exploring their gender identity or, sexual orientation it might be helpful to read about Amy Ellowitz’ experience as a parent with her child. “How to support the Transgender Kid in Your Life” by Amy Ellowitz offers tips and resources to help guide you and your loved one through your journey together.”
How to Support the Transgender Kid in Your Life
Sitting at the beach one afternoon eating ice cream, my youngest child looked me in the eyes and said, “Mom, I’m trans.” I did not flinch when he came out to me. My son had always been one hundred percent authentically direct. He was born an old soul—a natural leader who moves through the world with great certainty and confidence. No one can reach their fullest potential by repressing their true selves and in the worst of cases, repression can lead to maladaptive lifestyle habits such as alcoholism, drug addiction, promiscuity, gambling, etcetera. “Mom, you’re 7000% the right person to tell,” he said after confiding in me. I was grateful that he trusted me, and I was not about to let him down.
I did not perceive my son to be at odds with himself or his gender identity. He was embracing himself wholeheartedly and at the same time forging a deeper connection with me by making his truth vulnerable to me. I knew I needed to remain open, loving, and supportive in spite of a world that can be rigid, judgmental, even transphobic. For a split second, I wondered if identifying as trans might be a “phase.” But rather quickly, I decided that phase or no phase, my son would know he had my unwavering love and support. I also vowed to set the tone for all others. Five years later, my son is even more sure of his transgender identity. He enjoys the love and support of all who have the privilege of befriending him.
Transgender youth are at a remarkably higher risk of suicide in comparison to the cisgender population (a term used to describe a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth.) In one study conducted by the Trevor Project*, more than half of all transgender youth surveyed reported seriously considering suicide in the past year. Fear of abandonment and rejection are what trigger their suicidal ideation. Exercising care and caution as you approach your child’s transition from a place of love is crucial—not only to your child’s mental health and well-being but to yours as well. Children who exist within a supportive family and social circle experience significantly lower rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide compared with cisgender peers. You are the one raising your child, not the outside world. Use love as your guiding point and choose your child—every single time.
Adolescence and young adulthood are ripe with self-doubt. Teens who are exploring their gender identity place their greatest value on the simplest acts of caring. Contemporary research illustrates that transgender adolescents’ perception of their parents’ support may be the most significant protective factor in the teens’ mental health. Your child needs you to be an engaged and focused ally.
There are a few straightforward ways to demonstrate care and support to your child—all of which have no medical side effects and empower the teen to fully explore who they are. First, don’t underestimate the power of offering a hug—if your child is open to physical affection. Many transgender kids prefer not to be touched. Second, strive to be an active listener. Your child wants to know that you will be emotionally available to listen to his or her concerns. And lastly, when you ask your child what he or she wants, listen to his or her answers without judgement. The point is to lean in fully with your heart, your mind, and your ears.
Transgender youth perceive using their preferred name and pronoun as a significant source of support. But in the beginning, the hardest adjustment for parents tends to be using the child’s preferred name and pronoun consistently. Retiring the birth name is often a real challenge because parents tend to put a great deal of thought into choosing their child’s name prior to birth. A name often carries great significance in terms of its intended meaning, legacy, and tradition. You will slip up and use their birth name, it’s inevitable. Ask your child how he or she prefers you handle that and let them know you’re trying your best. In their sincere effort to be as supportive as possible, moms and dads will often suppress their own personal struggles as they adjust and adapt. A good mental health practitioner can support the parents and link them to the appropriate services as they work to process their own emotions surrounding transition.
Bear in mind that not every trans person presents at the same age or in the same way. Transgender identity can emerge during childhood, adolescence or beyond. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ first policy statement on the comprehensive care of transgender and gender diverse kids outlines a multidisciplinary approach, emphasizing “there is no prescribed path, sequence or endpoint.” Gender identity is not a choice but how we express our gender is. The way your child presents may not align with your understanding but that doesn’t mean their trans identity is invalid. Try not to impose your personal choices on your child. Don’t assume that they will want to explore procedures to help them look or sound more like they are cisgender. Move forward at their pace, providing support and being an advocate the entire way. This will leave the doors of communication open.
Transitioning is a systemic event that does not only impact the child. Parents undergo an adjustment period of their own and often find themselves unsure of how to proceed. It is common for parents to find themselves focusing on the negative when their child transitions. They tend to focus on the “big” things, like hormone therapy and surgeries, then emphasize the difficulty associated with those treatments. Parents fear discrimination, or worse, they worry their child will become a victim of a hate crime. But the more positively you speak, the more optimistic you will become. When put at ease, children who are comfortable in their own skin can pursue their passions wholeheartedly. So, shift your focus to the positive. Cite examples of trans people who are living full lives and making a difference in the world.
Supporting and advocating for my trans kid has given me the opportunity to learn the true definition of unconditional love. I have discovered what it means to be a conscious parent. My heart and mind have expanded in unimaginable ways. I have developed a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what it means to be human. And although we have certainly experienced our share of ignorance and discrimination, we have encountered a cross section of the best of humanity and created a fierce, loving, loyal tribe along the way. Below are some additional resources to help you gain more insight and more support into your journey as a parent and/or an ally of a trans kid.
The Trans 101 page on the LGBTQIA Resource Center website is a valuable resource for those who have become recent allies to the transgender community.
Parents of Transgender Children is a Facebook group with nearly eight thousand members. This page can link you to other families who are experiencing path that is similar to yours.
The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals This book outlines gender variance from birth through college combining extensive research and personal interviews. Its authors explore the unique challenges faced by thousands of families who are raising their children in every city and state.
Sunserve is a local organization that provides critical life assistance and professional mental health services with an emphasis on economically disadvantaged, marginalized youth, adults and seniors in the greater South Florida metropolitan area. For a more detailed look at the services offered by teens, go to https://www.sunserve.org/programs/youth-services/.
If you have any further questions and/or feel you need the support of a mental health professional, my door is always open to you and your child. Feel free to contact me here.
Amy Lee Ellowitz, MSW