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Pride Month: How to be an Ally to Transgender Teens & Kids

tween boy and adult outside. they are hugging and smiling

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:

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.

Transgender

Often shortened to trans. The child’s gender identity — their inner sense of their gender — differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Cisgender

The gender identity of a person whose gender matches the sex assigned at birth.

Gender Dysphoria

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.

Nonbinary/Genderfluid/Genderqueer

The child doesn’t always identify as 100% female or 100% male. People often use these terms interchangeably.

Gender Nonconforming

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:

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:

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:

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.

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.

View Transcript
Transcript: 1. MYTH: It's just a phase. My kid just wants attention. MARY SULLIVAN: Teenagers do want attention sometimes. And some of the things that teenagers do as part of their identity development may be a phase. Our experience is that saying that you're transgender or realizing you’re transgender is not often a phase. And if all your child wants you to do is use the name and pronouns they're asking you to use, there's no harm done in doing that. As we go into medical interventions, we do more education about what's reversible and what's not. But dismissing it as a phase is not very respectful of your child. Particularly if your child is experiencing a lot of emotional distress around this. 2. MYTH: Gender dysphoria is a mental illness. Because we do require a gender dysphoria diagnosis that sometimes people consider gender dysphoria a pathology that implies that something is wrong. Gender dysphoria does cause emotional distress that can manifest in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. But gender dysphoria on its own does not signal that somebody is mentally ill. 3. MYTH: Puberty blockers and hormones will harm my child and have lasting effects. I think it's important to point out that any time you're introducing medication, there is the possibility for side effects. Often the side effects pale in comparison to the emotional distress that somebody with gender dysphoria is experiencing. Puberty blockers are wonderful because they provide sort of a break, and their effects are reversible. When someone starts cross-sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone, some of the effects of those medications are not reversible. Which is why we proceed cautiously and slowly when prescribing them. And we generally start with low doses. 4. MYTH: Supporting my child would mean I approve of gayness, and it would go against my religion. I hear this one a lot too, and often when I try to delve in what's behind this statement, I find a lot of fear that they're experiencing based on what they've been told by other family members or members of a faith community. I also point out that there are many religious denominations who don't have any problem with somebody identifying as LGBTQ+ and that they need to decide what is most important for their own child or children. A lot of our parents who are initially non-supportive become much more supportive once they see how well their children do when they're able to be their true selves. 5. MYTH: I am losing my child. I gently try to point out to them that they're making it about themselves and not about their child. I can understand them perhaps feeling that way, and that may be something they can share with a therapist or a close friend, but it's not an empowering message to convey to their children. These kiddos not only survive but thrive. And I think the more affirming and empowering the messages they get from their parents, the better they're going to do.

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