Supporting Transgender Children and Youth
Former deputy executive director of New York City’s LGBT Community Center, therapist and transgender author, Elijah C. Nealy, has written the first-ever comprehensive guide to understanding and supporting trans kids, Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy With Families in Transition. Here, in the first of three articles for DAD.info, Elijah looks at the importance of parental acceptance and support for transgender children…
Over the past nine years, my clinical practice has focused on working with gender-diverse and transgender children, adolescents, and young adults and their families. My passion for this work evolves out of my own life narrative as a transgender man and a father. It is rooted within my own journey of pain and joy and motivated by my desire to ensure trans youth and their families not only stay connected, but also thrive.
This work is incredibly rich and meaningful. I am aware at the end of each day of the ways I make a difference in their immediate and emerging lives. I watch the ways trans youth are able to become who they are in the world much, much earlier than those in my age cohort did. I am amazed at the incredible ways most parents show up for their transgender children and support them, even when parents struggle to understand everything or perhaps aren't entirely sure it’s truly OK to be transgender.
While there is increased media coverage about transgender children and teens, our world is still not an easy place to grow up transgender. Most parents, daycare workers, and teachers do not know much about gender difference among children. Many still believe that gender-nonconforming or diverse behaviour among children is “wrong” and should not be tolerated, let alone accepted.
There are still medical doctors and mental health professionals who counsel parents to correct or “punish” young boys who like to play with girls’ toys, like the colours pink and purple, or want to wear a princess nightgown to bed. They tell parents to take away their girls’ toys, to not allow their gender-different boys to play with girls or play girls’ games, and instead insist upon only stereotypical masculine clothes, toys, activities, and playmates. The same can be true with young girls, though there is often more room for a girl to be a “tomboy” when she is young.
The first hurdle for any transgender child or adolescent is simply getting people to believe that they are, in fact, who they know themselves to be in terms of their gender identity, to acknowledge they are capable of knowing whether they are a boy or a girl (or both or neither) regardless of their body parts. Many people, even mental health professionals, insist it is impossible for a four-year-old, seven-year-old, 11-year-old, or even a 14-year-old to know they are transgender. Yet, when my non-transgender daughter and granddaughter twirled around in their princess dresses at the ages of two to three years, they knew without a doubt that they were girls.
If a young person manages to convince their parents that they are who they say they are, despite the sex they were assigned at birth, the next hurdle often involves whether or not that child or adolescent should be allowed to begin living in their affirmed gender. Gender transition is challenging for transgender adults. It can be even more difficult to navigate for children, teens and their families.
All of us as human beings, whether children or adults, want to be seen in the world. All of us want to be seen for who we really are, for who we know ourselves to be. We want our identity to be acknowledged and validated by those around us – particularly by the people who are important to us, the people we love and who love us, our family. Our willingness to listen, our openness to our child’s understanding of themselves, our support, and even blessing, as fathers is essential to our children’s wellbeing – transgender or not.
All of us long to be in relationships where we are free to be who we are, and where we are loved for who we are – not in spite of who we are. All of us long to be in relationships and communities where we can bring our whole selves. None of us want to have to hide parts of who we are. None of us want to compartmentalise parts of ourselves, to be forced to pick and choose which parts of us are “acceptable” or “safe” within a particular relationship or environment. Transgender children and adolescents want these things too.
The risks of depression, substance abuse, self-harming behaviours, hopelessness and suicide are exceptionally high among transgender adolescents when coupled with lack of family support and acceptance (read more about this in the Family Acceptance Project). Far too many trans adolescents take their own lives because they despair of ever being able to be who they are in the world or ever being accepted for who they are. As a dad, you and I can dramatically lower these risks for our transgender or gender-diverse children.
The more fathers of all kinds, other parents and parental figures, teachers, counsellors and family therapists understand gender identity and expression, and the experiences and needs of transgender youth and their families, the greater the possibility that we can not only prevent other transgender children and adolescents from taking their own lives, but also enable them to live happy and fulfilling lives as our adult children. The more fathers and other family members know how to communicate acceptance and support for the trans and gender-diverse youth in their lives, the greater the possibility these young people will grow up to become healthy and productive young adults. Over and over in my clinical practice, I’ve watched how a dad’s understanding and support can make a difference.
Three important ways to be there for your trans child
The most important thing for families coming to terms with their child being transgender is to always hold on to your love for your child. It’s not always comfortable being a parent, and we learn that with every single child – trans kids are no different. We may be confused and we may not be sure if we’re OK with our child being trans, but holding on to love will be the key to raising a happy trans child.
Even if you don’t fully understand what your child is going though, it’s important to listen to them and allow them to openly express their feelings, so they know they are really being heard, not being judged and can open up to you about any concerns or anxiety they may have.
Read as much as you can about what it means to be transgender and learn about other families' experiences with their trans children. Increased knowledge will help you to understand the issues and have a better grasp of how your child is feeling and how you can best support them on their journey.
Elijah C. Nealy is a therapist and former deputy executive director of New York City’s LGBT Community Centre. A trans man himself, he has written the first-ever comprehensive guide to understanding, supporting, and welcoming trans kids, Transgender Children And Youth: Cultivating Pride And Joy With Families In Transition.
Covering everything from family life to school and mental health issues, as well as the physical, social and emotional aspects of transition, the book is full of best practices to support trans kids. Find out more by watching the video below.
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