The first question we typically ask when a baby is born is “Is it a boy or a girl?” Traditionally, we see gender as binary (male or female). We assign a gender to our child based on the genitals that are present at their birth and we expect their gender to remain consistent throughout their life. What happens, then, when a young person’s experience of their gender (how they feel about themselves internally) does not line up with their assigned gender (the gender based on their biology)? Your child may be tansgender or non-binary.
Are Transgender and Non-Binary the Same Thing?
No, they are not. A transgender person has genital characteristics of one gender but experience themselves as the other gender (ie, “I have male genitals but internally, I experience myself as female,” or vice versa). A non-binary person’s gender identity does not neatly “fit” into an either/or category. The American Psychiatric Association defines this incongruence in gender identity as gender dysphoria and emphasizes that transgender and non-binary people often experience significant pain because of this conflict.
The Transgender and Non-Binary Teen’s Experience
The onset of puberty brings the development of secondary sex characteristics and that can significantly intensify your child’s pain and hurt their self-esteem. Many transgender and non-binary teens say they feel as though they are “living a lie,” “having to pretend to be someone they are not,” or “longing to be seen for who they really are.” Transgender and non-binary teens may avoid locker rooms and public restrooms, bind their chests, or begin dressing in a manner not typically associated with their assigned gender. They may isolate themselves socially, become depressed, abuse substances, or experience suicidal thoughts.
Although research has shown that adolescents and young adults with gender dysphoria are at significantly higher risk for these problems and are at greater risk of suicide, it has also been shown that the presence of at least one supportive and understanding adult greatly reduces these risks and can mitigate the harm associated with these powerful emotions.
How Can a Parent Help
Having your child “come out” to you as being transgender or non-binary can bring about a host of intense emotions in you as well. Many parents report feeling shock, confusion, disbelief, horror, fear, and loss. You may have questions about what this all means and how you can help your child. Some general guidelines to follow are:
- Always let your child know that you love them unconditionally, no matter what. Make sure to show this through your actions as well as in your words.
- Be supportive. Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions. Take their concerns seriously. Understand they may want to change their name or ask you to use pronouns consistent with their experienced gender. They may want to explore the option of hormone therapy. You don’t have to agree, but if you listen with an open mind can, literally, save your child’s life.
- Educate yourself. Join a support group. Get to know other parents who are going through similar issues. Talk to healthcare professionals who specialize in this area to get professional advice and accurate information.
- Follow your child’s lead when it comes to informing family members and friends. Your child needs a sense of control over who to tell and when.
- Refrain from telling your child they are “going through a phase.” Most teens will give this issue a tremendous amount of thought prior to disclosing to their parents.
- Understand that this is a very difficult issue for your child to talk to you about. Avoid over-reactions, preaching, or lecturing. When you are unsure, simply ask your child “how can I support you with this?” Never press for information your child is not yet ready to provide.
We are a group of LGBTQ allies. To schedule an appointment to speak with one of us, contact our office.