Parents often come to us with stories and questions – most commonly a child or teenager who they raised as a son has expressed feeling like a girl, or a desire to be a girl. Sometimes a child they thought was a girl has expressed being or wanting to be a boy. Some young people feel their gender isn’t male or female, and may use words like “non-binary” to describe themself.
Parents often have deep emotional fears, and big questions, such as:
- He’s getting teased about being a feminine boy, is that why he thinks he wants to be a girl?
- Is he just spending too much time with girls?
- Maybe he’s gay?
- Will giving him more masculine hobbies help?
- Maybe more discipline?
- Why does he want a hard life as a transgender woman, what will happen to him?
- Is he going to make permanent changes to his body that he can’t undo?
- Will he be a whole different person – will I lose my son?
- Is my non-binary child just confused?
- Does my daughter want to be a boy because of sexism?
- Is it just a phase?
Is there another answer – something other than being trans?
First, one must understand that very few people question their own gender in this way. It is very uncommon for a person who is not transgender to reach a point where they are internally asking themself ‘Am I transgender?’. In our broad experience, the answer is almost always ‘Yes’.
By the time children start puberty, they usually know how their gender feels, and will express it if they feel safe to do so. Many children know this at a much younger age, some report knowing since they were a toddler.
Some people quote ‘80% of trans kids change their minds later’, however this figure comes from poorly conducted and heavily biased research, and is incorrect. If allowed to transition (to outwardly express being transgender), less than 1% of trans people voluntarily go back because they feel they made a mistake about their gender. It is more common to “detransition” because of the difficulties one faces as a trans person, or because of pressure from family, friends, or work/school/doctors/church community, but ultimately living “in the closet” is not healthy long term. Most people who detransition eventually re-transition when it is safe to do so.
Even if it is just a phase, that’s OK. You can still support them.
Why is my child transgender?
Forget everything you have seen in films. Gender is not caused by teasing, trauma, recreational activities, or friends. Being transgender is a natural variance, and many cultures all over the world recognise 3, 6, or more genders. Natural variance is integral to life on earth, trans people have always existed, and can live full, rich, happy lives, especially with a supportive family.
Your child is still going to be the same person they’ve always been, but probably a lot happier with the right support.
What steps will my child take next?
Most young people will transition socially before anything else. This may involve things like changing their name, their hair, and their clothing. It might even mean redecorating their bedroom. This is something they can easily do without making any commitment to future changes.
Being able to socially transition is a huge relief to a transgender person, who has typically been living under enormous amounts of stress, anxiety, and often depression and suicidal feelings. 71% of trans people live with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ psychological distress, 9 times the rate of the general population. More than 1 in 3 attempt suicide at some point. You can have a big impact on your child’s life – most young trans people report dramatically improved mental health, stability, sense of self worth, and relationships with family if their family are supportive.
If your child is expressing a desire to change their gender, it is absolutely essential that you actively support them to gently explore this further at their own pace, if they want to. Talk with your child, let them know you love them no matter what their gender, and it is ok to explore being another gender. Ask them what pronouns they want to use (she/her, he/him, they/them/ia) and if they are ready to tell the wider whānau and others in their life. Let them lead and make decisions. Help them find information, connect with other young rainbow people, and get gender affirming clothing or other things they might need. You have a very special child, give them the love they deserve.
What about medical transition?
Until a child reaches puberty, there is no need for medical treatments of any kind. If they wish to talk with a therapist or counselor, you can support them with this, however most transgender children will be happy to explore gender at their own pace if their family is supportive.
Once puberty begins, some transgender children have a strong desire to take puberty blocking medication, or “puberty blockers”. These pause puberty, and are commonly given to transgender people at the start of puberty. They are safe and fully reversible.
If your child is experiencing the growth of facial and body hair, the development of an Adams apple, deepening of their voice, or possibly a receding hairline, puberty blockers will halt those effects of puberty – essentially blocking their testosterone from effecting their development in these ways. The same is true for people assigned female at birth – menstruation, breast development, widening of hips, and other puberty changes can be very distressing and some are irreversible if allowed to continue. Puberty blockers will simply pause puberty from making these changes, and give your child time to work out what feels right for them.
Without puberty blockers, many of the changes their body will go through during puberty are distressing, irreversible, and can have lifelong impacts.
If, in the future, your child stops taking puberty blockers, puberty changes will simply begin again – puberty blockers do not make permanent changes, they only pause things (much like contraceptive pills). They are completely reversible.
At around 16 years old, sex hormones (testosterone or estrogen) can be prescribed if desired. They are sometimes referred to as ‘cross sex hormones’. The main sex hormones prescribed to transgender patients are Oestrogen/Estrogen for people who were assigned ‘male’ at birth, or Testosterone for people who were assigned ‘female’ at birth. Oestrogen is primarily responsible for things like breast growth, skin softening, and fat distribution, while Testosterone is primarily responsible for things like deepening the voice, facial and body hair growth, and muscle mass. There is more information about medical transition here.
What about bullying and mental health?
If your child is seen as ‘different’, they may be experiencing bullying. This is extremely common for transgender teens (1 in 5 trans students experience bullying on a weekly basis – this is 5 times higher than for non-trans students).
Your child’s school is legally required to provide a safe learning environment, and the Ministry of Education recommends that schools provide inclusive gender education and allow trans students to use the bathrooms and changing rooms they feel safest in, or create gender-neutral single stall bathrooms and changing rooms.
There may be times when you wish your child would simply try to fit in. You must choose whether to join in telling them they are not good enough and they should change, or to accept your child for who they are and take a stand to demand respect and safety for your whānau.
We hope that this information is useful in assisting you to think about the best ways in which to support your child. You can find many useful resources in the general info section of our website, and get in touch with us if you have any questions or need to talk. We support trans people of all ages, and their families and wider whānau as well.