Information for Parents with Transgender Sons and Daughters
When a child regardless of age makes the announcement they are in the wrong body it can be quite confronting initially for parents. But it doesn't mean you can't be supportive even though you may not understand completely what this means. The best thing you can do for yourself and child is find support and information that will help you support your child and help you understand what is happening with your child.
The term “gender dysphoria” is the term most commonly used to describe this feeling of being in the wrong body and the leading authority on this is the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), an association of the leading healthcare professionals devoted to promoting evidence based care, education, research, advocacy, public policy and respect in transgender health. WPATH describes “gender dysphoria” as discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics). The American Heritage Dictionary describes “dysphoria” in more appropriately stronger terms as meaning “an emotional state characterized by anxiety, depression, and restlessness”.
Your approach to helping or guiding your child with gender dysphoria will depend very much on the child’s age – whether pre-pubertal, post-pubertal up to 18, or adult.
Pre-pubertal children exhibiting significant atypical gender behaviour are referred to as gender-variant as there is no reliable way to predict if the child will be a transgender adult. Whether the gender variance subsequently proves to be temporary or permanent, it is real to the child at the time.
As parents you may believe the child is attention seeking, confused or role- playing. However, as a parent you need to understand your child has thought about how they are feeling about seeing themselves in the wrong body and it can be just as confusing and confronting for them as it is for a parent.
Parents need to take the lead from their child with this issue. If you have a child who is saying they are a girl when you see them as a boy, take them seriously and ask questions. Do not assume they are confused or simply going through a phase. If your child is insisting they are the opposite gender, has chosen a new name or refuses to wear the appropriate clothes for their gender, there is no point just rousing at him/her and telling them to stop being silly.
Take the lead from the child’s own cues and be supportive without either encouraging or discouraging the child. Try to learn to tolerate uncertainty about the young child's future gender. It will become much clearer with the onset of puberty.
Gender variant children who start to become more distressed at the onset of puberty are likely to become gender dysphoric adults and they need expert assessment by a child psychiatrist and a paediatric endocrinologist. Lady Cilento Gender Clinic offers a full assessment service with funding of puberty blockers, this service requires at least a GP referral.
Talking to an experienced health professional (psychologist or psychiatrist) would be helpful at any stage but if the child is distressed it becomes essential. Their role is not to encourage the child in a particular direction, but to assess the child, provide guidance and support to the family, and over time make shared decisions about any therapy the child may require.
Health professionals may also assist with:
dealing with anxiety, depression, anger and anti-social behaviour, all of which may become more serious as the child reaches puberty
issues at school, especially if the decision is made for your child to dress as they feel is right for them
medication such as reversible puberty blockers which temporarily halt bodily changes such as hair growth and deepening voice in genetic males and the growth of breasts and menstrual cycles in genetic females.
Dealing with your own reaction
It is important that you do not feel guilty about your child being transgender.
And as parents you may fear you have:
been lacking in parental guidance
provided the wrong toys
been poor role models
not encouraged team sport or activities
guided your child in the wrong direction.
However, it is important to realise that it is not your fault – being transgender is not a choice or a result of bad parenting.
This for many parents is quite confronting, confusing and for some too much to comprehend, temporarily at least. As parents, you may wonder how this issue gone unnoticed.
Usually when you start talking to your adult children about transitioning you learn that they have known they were in the wrong body from a very young age. You also learn, even though your child may now be adult, of the anguish, possible suicidal ideation and inner turmoil your child has gone through for many years. So this should immediately let you know the decision to transition hasn't been taken lightly.
Many transgender people realise from an early age that they are different, which can be most confusing. For those of us who have never felt any mismatch between their inner and outer selves, it is difficult to imagine how a transgender person feels and how difficult it is for them to come to terms with what is entailed to make them feel complete.
You may learn your child has been living as the other gender for a while, while for others the adult child is just about to start transitioning and can no longer keep the secret. Transitioning can mean taking hormones or changing into their new way of dressing.
Parents also need to be aware that transitioning can mean different things. Some feel the need for hormones and complete surgery. Some just need to live as the opposite sex and some just want hormones and perhaps some surgery.
Surgery is an option after much counselling and consideration by the experts and individual once the person is over the age of eighteen. It is for the individual to decide on how much surgery they want or need, to be how they see themselves. Again, as a caring parent it is important that you are as supportive as possible. Sex reassignment surgery is only changing the physical. It doesn’t make them a different person but transitioning may make them a happier and better adjusted person. They may develop new interests over time.
Transitioning is also a process that takes time. It's a time of seeing psychologists and a variety of medical specialists and can take a few years even if finances aren't an issue. There may also be non-surgical treatment needed, for example hair removal by male to female transgender people which can be costly.
As their parent you could ask how you can help, but don't try to take over how they handle their transition. Find out how much input they want you to have, whether they want help to access medical assistance, how much personal support they want, or whether they want help to dress appropriately for their new honest self. Parents need to take care that there is no intrusion into privacy.
It is not suggested that it will be an easy time but it’s a parent’s role to try to love their children unconditionally and keep them safe if possible. Suicide is very high for transgender people and this is often because of lack of understanding and little support, not because it’s a trait of being transgender. The risk is increased if they are rejected by family.
The concerns of most parents
Whether your transgender child is young or an adult, your concerns are naturally likely to include:
seeing your child in what you perceive as the wrong clothes
calling your child by the "wrong" name or refusing to call them by the new name (One tip: If your child is in female clothes, use feminine terms and name, and if in male clothing use male terms and name.)
calling them “him” or “he” instead of “her” or “she” and vice versa which can cause a lot of friction
telling family and friends
being judged as bad parents
hearing negative comments about your child
fear of bullying
wondering if it’s mental illness
what if the transgender person wants children
wondering if they will they ever have a partner and who the partner may be.
These concerns can be alleviated by talking to an experienced psychologist, support groups and others who have been through this process.
Being a transgender person is not an “easy option”
Living life in the gender your child identifies as is neither cheap nor easy. It takes a great deal of inner strength to live the life honestly. Initially, there are some consultations with an experienced health professional to establish that the person is truly transgender. After that the transitioning process is difficult and requires patience as it may take some years.
As parents and society generally, we need to understand being transgender is not a choice, fad or phase. Nor is it a mental illness. However, many do suffer differing forms of mental illness and depression because of how they are perceived by family and society as a whole.
Places to seek support:
Child and Youth Mental Health Service
Transgender Support 07 3843 5024
Queensland AIDS Council 07 3017 1777
New South Wales
NSW AIDS Council 02 9206 2000
Gender Centre 02 9569 2366
AIDS Council 08 8362 0306
Transgender Support 0409 091 663
AIDS Council 03 9865 6700
Transgender Support (voicemail) 03 9517 6613
"The Boy Who Was Born a Girl: One Mother's Unconditional Love for Her Child"- by Jon Edwards
"The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals" [Paperback] by Stephanie A. Brill (Author), Rachel Pepper (Author)