As a teenager in the late 90s, I barely knew what “transgender” meant. Certainly, nobody at my conservative high school was openly transgender or non-binary. In 2017, however, researchers found that 1.8% of high school students identify as transgender.
That means that many of us have teens in our lives who don’t identify, at least not always, with the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, their birth certificate says male, but they feel uncomfortable being called a boy. They want to wear dresses and sparkly pink clothes. The onset of puberty causes changes that don’t feel right. They don’t feel their body matches their brain.
Alarmingly, in the same 2017 study, researchers also found that transgender teens were more likely than their cisgender peers to report:
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
- Being bullied
- Sexually risky behaviors
- Substance use
With June being LGBTQ+ Pride Month, this is a perfect chance to reflect on how to be an ally to transgender youth. Say your grandchild, niece, nephew, or student tells you they’re questioning their gender identity. You might have a million thoughts and questions. How can you support them?
Know Your Gender Identity Terms
First, here’s an overview of some of the words you may hear.
Sex Assigned at Birth
When a baby is born, a doctor labels the infant with a sex — male or female — based on a quick glance at genitalia. However, several factors play into sex and gender, some of them genetic, some hormonal, and some internal. Not only can a child have a mix of sex characteristics, but none of these have anything to do with gender, which is an innate sense of identity distinct from physical sex.
Often shortened to trans. The child’s gender identity — their inner sense of their gender — differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
The gender identity of a person whose gender matches the sex assigned at birth.
A strong feeling of distress that occurs when your sex assigned at birth doesn’t match your gender identity. For a gender dysphoria diagnosis, the child must experience this distress for at least 6 months and meet other criteria.
The child doesn’t always identify as 100% female or 100% male. People often use these terms interchangeably.
The child doesn’t fit our society’s stereotypes around how boys or girls typically act and dress.
This certainly isn’t a complete list of terms. Check out:
How to be an Ally: What Not to Say
Mary Sullivan is the Transgender Teen Health Clinic’s outreach coordinator. She works with the families of many transgender and questioning teens.
First off, Sullivan advises, check your own reactions. Here are some things you shouldn’t say.
“You’re Just Going Through a Phase”
Sullivan acknowledges that some kids may be exploring identities or trying to fit in at school. But the child may also be experiencing true gender dysphoria. If you dismiss their feelings, they’ll feel even worse and won’t confide in you again.
Even if this is a phase, there’s nothing wrong with being supportive. That includes using the name and pronouns that the teen prefers.
Don’t assume being transgender means permanent physical changes, like hormone therapy or gender-confirmation surgery. Many transgender people never transition medically, Sullivan says. And if they do, it’s a multi-stepped process that takes time. For kids under 18, medical intervention requires parental consent. It won’t be a spontaneous decision.
“Your Life Will Be So Hard”
Sullivan hears this one a lot. Also common: “I love you, but I’m scared for you.”
It’s understandable to think this, to have doubts and concerns. Share these feelings with your best friend or your therapist; it feels like blame or burden to your child. Focus on being supportive in your conversations with your child.
What You Can Say: How to be an Ally to Transgender Teens
Sullivan suggests listening more than talking, especially with younger kids. Ask questions like:
- How are you feeling?
- What do you want me to understand?
- What do you need?
- What do you want?
- What makes you feel happy/excited/hopeful?
- What makes you feel angry/anxious/sad?
- How can I advocate for and support you?
It’s also OK to ask them about their plans for the future. That includes whether they want to medically transition.
Later, after the discussion, check in with the kid and see how they’re doing.
Should You Tell the Parents?
If you don’t have the child’s consent, the answer is 100% no. Don’t tell anyone without consent.
Imagine the fallout if the parents aren’t supportive. You could put the child at greater risk for physical and verbal abuse and mental health issues. Even if the parents show support, the kid will be hurt by your betrayal and lose trust in you.
But you can say:
- Would you like your parents to know this about you?
- Tell me more about how you think they’ll react.
- We can talk to your parents together if you want.
Trans Youth Healthcare
UVA Children's has a safe, supportive clinic for ages 11-26.
Don’t push the child to tell their parents if they don’t want to. Respect their wishes and let them guide the discussion.
Gender Nonconforming Kids
In some cases, the kid might not tell you anything. But you’re noticing changes — say, your niece seems depressed, and her new haircut looks masculine to you. Or your nephew shows up in a skirt.
Don’t make assumptions. Tell them what you’re observing. Sullivan suggests:
- I notice your mood seems different recently. Is there anything going on that I can help with?
- It seems like your style has changed. I like it; tell me more about it.
- You seem down in the dumps. Let me know what you mean.
- You seem more confident since you got that haircut. That is terrific.
Mental Health & Suicidal Thoughts in Transgender Teens
One exception to Sullivan’s “don’t tell the parents” guidance: suicidal comments. But even then, she cautions, “fleeting suicidal thoughts are quite common” in tweens and teens.
Try to determine if the child has a plan and the ability to carry it out. If so, you need to tell the parents. By that point, Sullivan says, the child probably wants them to know, even if they don’t admit it. “They want whatever pain they’re experiencing to go away,” she says.
LGBTQ Mental Health Support
These resources offer free, confidential counseling and support.
- The Trevor Project — available 24/7 for LGBTQ youth
Text: START to 678-678.
Chat online (computer recommended)
- Trans Lifeline — for all trans and questioning people
Phone: 877.565.8860 (U.S.), 877.330.6366 (Canada)
- Side by Side — Virginia-based, available 24/7 for LGBTQ youth
- Virginia Anti-Violence Project — For LGBTQ people experiencing intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, or stalking
- ReadyKids — Hotline available 24/7 for teens or concerned adults
- PFLAG Blue Ridge — Monthly meetings for trans people and their families
When Your Child is Transgender: 5 Myths to Reconsider
This video is for parents or any ally of a trans child or teen. Sullivan explains common questions and misconceptions, including puberty blockers and gender dysphoria.