Raising Healthy Teens

How to Support a Transgender Teen

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Parenting teens is never easy. When you’re raising a transgender teen in the midst of a transformation—a change often met with societal or parental resistance—it can be a minefield. But your child needs your support now, more than ever.

“We’ve latched on to this idea that gender is fixed, but we know in medicine that exploring your identity as it relates to gender is a normal part of growing up,” explains Henry Ford pediatrician Maureen Connolly, M.D.

Unfortunately, transgender teens receive near constant reminders that their body and mind are not in sync. When they’re not allowed to transition, they may suffer from depression, self-hatred and an increased risk of inflicting self-harm.

However, there’s some good news, too: A growing body of research suggests young people who receive supportive care while they’re transitioning can go on to lead healthy, happy lives.

Here, Dr. Connolly offers six strategies to support your transgender teen:

  1. Don’t panic. First, it’s going to be okay. Often, if you feel the urge to push back against or reject your child, it’s likely coming from a deep-seated fear that your child is going to suffer hardships because of this change in identity. Underneath that fear is love. So make sure your child understands you’re on his/her team and together you will figure out how to proceed. The fact that your child has shared these feelings with you is a sign that he/she feels secure in your relationship—and that’s a great starting point.
  1. Encourage exploration. Gender exploration is a normal part of adolescent development. When your child first expresses feelings that who they are inside doesn’t match up with the body they were born with, give them freedom to explore those emotions. If your daughter says she feels like a boy inside, let her cut her hair, call her by a different name and switch up her wardrobe. By supporting your child in low-stakes ways, she’s able to explore her gender identity before considering a permanent change.
  1. Get educated. The best way to help your child is to arm yourself with information about gender expression. A number of resources are available for parents of transgender children, such as American Psychological Association, GLAAD, and the Trans Youth Equality Foundation. Most important, understand that gender identity is who your child is, not what he or she is. Being transgender is not a mental disorder, and it’s not inextricably linked with sexuality. Your transgender teen may be straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Some people may even identify as homosexual before they realize they’re transgender.
  1. Create a safe place for discussion. The most important thing parents (and loved ones) can do to help transgender kids is to keep the lines of communication open. Transitioning can be a long and difficult journey, including both social transitioning (clothing, name and preferred activities) and medical transitioning (hormones and gender reassignment surgery). Encouraging transgender children to discuss their feelings goes a long way toward helping them feel safe and protected while they make the change.
  1. Allow yourself time to transition. Your transgender teen isn’t the only person making a huge change. Each member of the immediate family also has to shift their thinking and understanding. Parents may experience feelings of loss because certain dreams they have for their child’s future will be unrealized. Siblings, too, need time to adjust and understand. Take the time you need to grieve and inform your child that you may forget to use the appropriate pronouns, or a new name, but eventually, you’ll get there.
  1. Get help. Transitioning to a different gender is complicated, obviously. Make sure you and your teen have a team of professionals to help you navigate these uncharted waters. In addition to aligning yourselves with medical and mental-health experts, identify allies in the school system so your child knows where to go for support when he/she feels bullied or excluded.

“The key is to give all young people the opportunity to explore their gender identity in a non-stigmatizing way,” says Dr. Connolly. “The trans youths I see are ultimately going to make the world a better place by creating a generation of people who are more accepting. This willingness to stand up for who they are will hopefully move our society forward.”

If you think your child may be experiencing a gender identity crisis, don’t wait to get help. Work with a doctor and mental health professional who specialize in transgender youth. For more information about services available at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936). Or you can email Dr. Connolly at mconnol1@hfhs.org.

Dr. Maureen Connolly is a pediatrician specializing in adolescent reproductive and sexual health, the care of LGBTQ youth, HIV prevention including PrEP, and transition care for transgender and gender nonconforming young people.