Keeping them safe begins at home.
Nearly 3% of teens will identify as transgender or gender nonconforming in their lifetime, according to a survey published in Pediatrics. Many may wait to claim their identity until later in life, but the portion of school-aged children making their feelings public is higher than ever before.
With this in mind, how can we keep them safe?
“Bullying directed toward transgender young people is, unfortunately, very common,” says Dr. Jessica Sevecke, a child and adolescent psychologist at Geisinger’s Mt. Pleasant clinic in Scranton. “This sort of harassment can lead to a host of mental health issues including anxiety and depression.” However, this cycle can be slowed with the help of inclusionary programs and involvement on the part of all people, transgender or not.
Here are some things family members can do to support a transgender child and keep them safe both in and out of the home.
Recognize gender dysphoria
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recommends that parents and guardians of children take their gender identity seriously if they stray from typical gender roles in a way that is “consistent, insistent and persistent.”
“Children learn traditional gender norms from the world around them but may experiment with gender norms outside of those typically consistent with their sex assigned at birth,” explains Dr. Sevecke. “If your daughter is playing in the mud and your son is playing in your makeup case, that does not mean they are transgender. However, if your child is insistent upon expressing their gender in a way that is inconsistent with gender norms associated with their sex or expresses that they are not comfortable with their body, it is important to take your child seriously and support your child as they explore their gender identity.”
For children who are experiencing significant distress associated with conflict between their sex (e.g. male or female) and gender, your child may be dealing with gender dysphoria, the clinical term for a person whose birth gender doesn’t match their personal identity.
Providing affirmative care to your child
Due to complicated emotions involved in exploring gender identity and expression, it’s important for friends and loved ones to engage in affirmative action steps to ensure your child feels supported. Using your child’s chosen name and pronouns can provide validation and decrease risk for depression and anxiety. It is also a subtle, but meaningful way to show your support.
Providing affirmative support to your child can also help loved ones identify discrimination and transphobia, allowing you to advocate for your child. Additionally, this support may encourage them to speak out on their own behalf when necessary.
Fear of rejection, an inability to find the words or lack of knowledge can all cause people to assume their identity later in life, but a support system can ease the transition. An engaged family member may also be the first line of defense if issues arise outside of the household that can put emotional or mental health into jeopardy.
Maintain a detailed medical history
After puberty, comfortably living as a “passing” transgender person — both personally and in public — becomes more difficult. “Passing” is a term classifying transgender people who are able to express their gender identity publicly without outsiders being able to identify their birth sex.
“It can be extremely frustrating to go through puberty and see your body developing in a way you don’t identify with,” explains Dr. Sevecke. “Because of this, transgender youth may seek out medical gender affirmation options, like hormone therapy, to slow the effects of puberty.”
The support of loved ones in these matters can have massive impacts on the long-term success of the medical therapies, as well. Hormone therapy can be done safely with prescribed medications. However, thousands of transgender people are forced to purchase the medications illegally each year, due to a lack of support or funds. This can lead to issues with improper injection, unbalanced dosages and questionable sources.
Maintaining a detailed medical history can smooth this process, as the medications are often injected and require lifelong use. Your child may also seek out gender affirmation surgery as an adult; having a medical history will provide the necessary background for their care team.