Children all go through development phases. Figuring out what it means to be male or female, and what feelings align or don’t with society’s “norms” is healthy. But what’s a parent to do if one’s son or daughter consistently identifies with being of the opposite sex?
There is no “101 Guide” for knowing if your child is transgender. Experts say that there are common traits to be aware of. Help is also available for parents seeking advice with transgender transitions.
Respect your child’s intuition
“Some have grouped the traits of being consistent, persistent, and insistent as a way to know if it’s more than curiosity or experimentation,” explains Lauren Foster. Foster is the director of Concierge Services for the LGBTQ Center for Wellness, Gender and Sexual Health at the University of Miami Health System. The program opened in early 2017. It is one of the first of its kind in the southeastern U.S. She says that listening to your child, and respecting his or her feelings, is most important.
“It sounds so basic, but it’s true,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what your child is going through—if your child is obese, has a learning disability, social awkwardness, or sexual or non-sexual identity issues. If we respect, love and really support our kids, trusting their instincts, we can’t go wrong.”
The science of gender identity
Why are some kids transgender and others aren’t? Research is ongoing, but without any agreed upon conclusions. Would the answers change how individuals are treated or diagnosed? Probably not. In a March 2018 cover story in The Scientist, entitled The Transgender Brain, the challenge of recruiting enough transgender participants for meaningful data also was raised.
There have been studies highlighting differences in brain composition. No “transgender brain signature” pattern has yet emerged, however. The current working explanation generally involves a combination of biological, psychological and social factors.
As far as a medical diagnosis, gender dysphoria is the phrase used. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), gender dysphoria involves “a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, and significant distress or problems functioning.”
In addition to desiring to be of the other gender, and/or insisting that one is the other gender, the APA lists the following traits as those most recognized in transgender children. At least six such traits must occur for a minimum of six months for a dysphoria diagnosis. Some children do not continue to meet the criteria into adolescence and adulthood, and some do.
- Strong preferences for wearing clothes typically worn by the opposite gender; for cross-gender roles in make-believe play; for toys, games or activities more often engaged in by the other gender; and for playmates of the other gender.
- Strong dislikes/rejections of toys, games or activities typically enjoyed by one’s assigned gender; or a strong dislike of one’s sexual anatomy or physical sex characteristics that match a child’s assigned/experienced gender.
Dangers of rejecting your child’s instinct
Some parents see the signs and do not want to accept them. But trying to deny or minimize consistent, strong feelings can do harm: both in healthy gender identity affirmation, and in later suicide risks.
“I knew that I felt different when I was three years old,” says Foster, of her own story. “I didn’t know what it meant, or what it was called, but I knew I was different.”
She recalls the dramatic day that it became clearer. Foster, a South African native, was with her father in a men’s locker room following his cricket match. The smell of men’s sweat and the feelings she experienced were unbearable. She burst out of the locker room to escape.
“I felt I just did not belong there. I ran out screaming. That was the moment that I recognized that I identified as being a girl. My parents were wonderful. They supported me through my transition, and never stopped loving and accepting me.”
Acknowledge your own feelings
It may seem odd to associate grief with one’s child being transgender, but it is natural for many parents. One can feel one is losing his or her child in some cases. More often, it is the result of feeling one is losing out on the future experiences and expectations one may have had for a son or daughter.
“Your child is still your child,” shares Foster. “You will still be able to share in every aspect of his or her life. But often it is hard to walk that transition. Allow time for those feelings. Acknowledge them. Look instead to the new opportunities ahead, and how fortunate you both are to have each other.”
How to support a transgender child
There may not yet be a Dummies Guide to Transgender Parenting, but experts like Foster offer these essentials as a start:
- Assure: Give the parental love and respect every child needs to thrive.
- Accept: Allow your child to dress how he or she wants, and to behave in a way that feels natural. Use preferred gender pronouns and his/her preferred name.
- Learn: Read up on the many issues and concerns faced by the transgender community.
- Advocate: Don’t sit by when you see discrimination or bullying. Insist others show respect, too.
- Empower: Teach transgender children to safely advocate for themselves. You won’t always be there!
Finally, acknowledge that you are on a new journey you did not expect. You will be okay, and you have help from one source you can depend on.
“When parenting a trans child, let them teach you,” encourages Foster. “Your child will be the best guide you could ever have.”
John Senall is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog. He is a former hospital and comprehensive cancer center communications director.