My exposure to the concept of transgender in graduate school probably consisted of a paragraph in my human sexuality book. In 2001, the topic was not really discussed in the news as frequently as it is today. Although my college experience was not super helpful on the subject, I have had the privilege to learn from a handful of courageous teens that remain very close to my heart. Witnessing their struggles has compelled me to write a blog to give them a voice in an environment where they feel they have none.
What does Transgender actually mean?
In case you have been living under a rock, let’s get down to the basics - “What does Transgender actually mean?” Merriam-webster.com defines Transgender as: “relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth; especially : of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity is opposite the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” In easy terms, when internal feelings about gender do not match the gender documented on the birth certificate. The brain says one thing and the body shows something different.
For the purpose of this blog, I am using the genders non-conforming and non-binary under the transgender umbrella. This is not completely accurate but I did this to keep the writing clear and to the point.
If you recently learned that your child is transgender, you may feel a mixture of emotions and confusion. Please allow me make it worse for you for a moment to highlight a very important point. According to a study conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, “30 percent of transgender youth report a history of at least one suicide attempt, and nearly 42 percent report a history of self-injury, such as cutting.” That statistic is fairly consistent with one quoted in a 2015 USA Today article: “41 percent try to kill themselves at some point in their lives, compared to 4.6 percent of the general public.”
Emotional pain stems from discrimination, violence, bullying, harassment and rejection by family and friends.
The high suicide rate has left many to wonder why an individual would consider transitioning. The research I have read has suggested that the emotional pain does not come from the feeling of being trapped in a body that does not match their gender. It stems from the discrimination, violence, bullying, harassment, and rejection by family and friends. If you would like to read about this in more detail check out any of the articles hyperlinked in this article.
Ready for the positive side? You play an integral part in protecting your child from some of the risk factors. A Canadian study documented a 57 percent drop in the suicide rate when transgender individuals have supportive parents. That is powerful!
Now let's talk about what teens want...
It’s not about you.
After hearing your child announce they are transgender, you may feel confused, angry, or concerned, or you may not know how to react. Many parents go through a process of grieving the loss of the gender of the child they thought they had. This is all okay and perfectly normal. However, it is important to deal with your emotions separately from your child. They are experiencing a flood of feelings and are likely scared. Adding guilt about your feelings may be overwhelming to them. That is not to say you can’t share your feelings and thoughts. Just don’t dwell on those feelings with your child. Seek counseling or a local or online support group. The Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) website has a plethora of resources listed.
“I am still the same person”
Your child didn't automatically change upon announcing their transgender status. They are the same person on the inside. Many people tell me they never felt like they belonged in their body or that they felt uncomfortable with the pronouns people used with them but didn’t understand why. As they matured and developed they started to understand more clearly and were better able to articulate this.
“It hurts when you don’t use my preferred pronoun/name”
Dale Carnegie says it best when he says, “A person’s name is the sweetest sound.” This is one of the easiest ways to support your child. It takes time to get used to using the preferred pronouns and name. You will stumble on your words and correct yourself often but when the effort is there, the person will feel supported and loved. This is a good time for me to remind you- again - it is not about you. Your child isn’t rejecting the name you gave them at birth, they are finding a name that fits their gender.
“I hate it when you infer, ‘it is just a phase’."
The therapist in me says, “Even if it is, who cares?” A former 18 year old client expressed this beautifully in saying, “[e]ven if it is a phase, it’s still who they are for the time being and it’s a small thing you can do to make your child feel good when a lot of the time it feels the world is against them.” If it is a phase and you support your child, they will get through it, your relationship will be preserved, and they will feel empowered to express themselves throughout their life. What a wonderful experience!
There is a lot of information on the internet
Read about it. Learn and grow with your child. Did you know that neuroscience is beginning to look at the idea of gender existing on a spectrum? What about the concept that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things? Darlene Tanto explains the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation well in the hyperlinked blog above. Taking the time to read and learn is another way to show love and support for your child.
“Expressing myself through my clothes and hair style is important”
It may be hard to get used to the child you knew as your daughter shopping in the men’s section or wanting to get “her” hair cut super short. Or the child you knew as your son wanting to wear makeup. In the end, these are just external things. If it makes them feel more secure, let them do it. Hair can grow back. Your child may not always want to wear makeup. Supporting these desires will help your teen adjust much easier.
This is a scary and confusing time for you and your teen. Don’t panic. Seek support, education, and maybe even a therapist who is knowledgeable in this area. A good counselor can be useful in helping family members individually or help the family unit as a whole. You have the power to decrease at least some of the risk factors for suicide.