When you gave birth to or adopted your little boy or little girl, you might not have ever expected them to one day identify as a different gender. Many parents, even those who consider themselves open-minded, are thrown for a loop when their teen comes out as transgender. Transgender can include identifying as the opposite gender (a biological boy identifying as female or vice versa), but it can also mean a person who is genderfluid, genderless, or otherwise not on the binary male-female scale. If your teen identifies as a transgender teen, here are some tips on supporting them.
Understand the Difference Between Gender and Sexual Orientation
Many people don’t realize that gender identity and sexual orientation are two completely separate things. A teen who identifies as gay is not necessarily (in fact, is usually not) transgender. Some girls are attracted to other girls and some boys are attracted to other boys. This means that your child is gay or lesbian (or if they’re attracted to both, bisexual or pansexual), but it doesn’t have anything to do with his or her gender.
Gender has to do more with self-identity. Just as you identify as a male or a female, your teen does, too. If they identify with the gender that is not the one they were assigned at birth due to their anatomy, then they are considered transgender. Transgender males (that is, biological females who identify as male) might be attracted to men, in which case they are gay transgender males, or to females, in which case they are straight transgender males. The same goes for transgender females (biological males who identify as female). People who identify as a gender they were not born with and are experiencing significant stress have what is called gender dysphoria.
Understanding the difference can help you better understand your transgender teen. It can also help you advocate for them when you need to by explaining the difference to other relatives and friends once your teen decides to come out (more on that later).
Don’t Misgender Your Teen
While you have been referring to your daughter as “her” and “she” or to your son as “him” and “he,” your transgender teen will likely have another preferred pronoun now. It’s important that you use it correctly every time. If you do slip up, apologize and make a strong effort to not let it happen again. Many youths who are transgender will prefer the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” Others will go with the feminine or masculine pronouns that match their gender identity. A few will choose pronouns like “zim” or “zir,” and some will ask that you simply use their name and no pronouns at all.
Just as you are learning to refer to your teen by a new pronoun, you might need to also refer to them by a new name. This can come as a blow to parents; you likely spent months thinking about and choosing the perfect name for your child, and now they’re changing it. Come to terms with it and do not call your child by their old name. Introduce them by their new name and correct others when they use the old name by accident.
Don’t “Come Out” for Your Child
Keep in mind that the privilege of announcing a gender identity belongs to your child and your child alone. Do not tell others in your family or community unless your teen says that you may. He or she might not want others to know at this point, and that’s okay. Support your teen’s decision when it comes to coming out to others or keeping the information to themselves. Remember that you would not want others discussing your sexuality without you being the one to start the conversation, so give your transgender teen the same respect.
Explore the Options for Treatment (If Your Teen Wants To)
Some transgender teens will want to consider hormones and/or surgery and others will not. Talk to your teen and see what they think. It’s up to you if you want to support hormones or surgery for a minor; there are pros and cons to doing this. Transgender males might choose to wear binders to hide their breasts, and transgender females might want to wear a bra with fake breasts in the meantime. Some transgender youth and adults choose not to have surgery or use hormones at all.
Be Aware of the Danger of Suicide
Unfortunately, approximately half of transgender youth attempt suicide before the age of 25. This risk can be mitigated at least somewhat by a supportive, understanding family. That being said, you cannot control how society reacts to and treats your child. Having a supportive circle of family and friends can be a buffer between your transgender teen and a society that can be hostile to those with gender dysphoria.
It’s important to be aware of the signs that a young person might be considering suicide. They include:
- Depression: Overwhelming sadness, feelings of uselessness or hopelessness, feelings of misplaced guilt.
- Isolation: Your teen might not want to go out with friends, hang out with family, or even go to school.
- Wrapping up loose ends: Your teen might contact people he or she has had arguments with and try to make amends.
- Giving away prized possessions.
- Talking about “when I’m gone” or having a preoccupation with death and dying.
- Acquiring a gun, hoarding medication (that could be used to overdose), or otherwise getting their hands on some type of weapon or instrument that could cause death.
If you think that your teen is in immediate danger, don’t hesitate to call 911, head to the nearest emergency room, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you suspect that they might be suicidal but not that they are going to harm themselves right away, make an urgent appointment with a transgender-friendly mental health counselor.
Love Your Transgender Teen
As a parent, you can and should unconditionally love your child and accept them for who they are. This includes matters of gender identity. If you are struggling or if you just aren’t sure how you can support your teen, seek counseling. A support group for parents of transgender teens or a transgender-friendly therapist can help you take the steps needed to fully love, accept, and support your teen.