Being a parent of a teenager with gender dysphoria brings many challenges. Not only is it difficult to watch your child struggle with their identity, but it is often hard to know how to best support them.
What is Gender Dysphoria
The term “gender dysphoria” is defined by ongoing, strong feelings of discomfort and/or distress stemming from the incongruence between one’s gender identity and the sex assigned at birth. Essentially, individuals with gender dysphoria want to live as members of the opposite sex, and struggle immensely with identity issues. Gender dysphoria can occur in children, teens, or adults, yet may manifest in different ways depending on the person’s age. The cause of gender dysphoria is unknown, but studies indicate a strong connection between hormones in the womb and the development of gender dysphoria.
Signs of Gender Dysphoria in Teens
- Intense desire to be the other sex (i.e. dressing as the other sex)
- Ongoing and intense discomfort with biological sex
- Expression of anger regarding the gender binary (male vs. female)
There are some less obvious signs that could indicate gender dysphoria in teens including:
- Ongoing difficulty getting through the day
The distress of gender dysphoria is pervasive in one’s life. Imagine feeling “trapped” in your body due to inappropriate sex characteristics and spending everyday wishing you could match the “inside” to the “outside.” For teenagers with gender dysphoria, this can be hugely exhausting.
- Lack of meaning in life
Many teens with gender dysphoria find it difficult to truly feel any real sense of purpose in life. Some have described it as living each day just to “check off a box” without any higher sense of moving/working towards something. Because little or nothing feels meaningful for many teenagers with gender dysphoria, it is no surprise these same individuals tend to lack motivation in general.
- Emotional disconnection
Although there can be other reasons why your teen might appear disconnected emotionally, this frequently occurs for those experiencing gender dysphoria. Being emotionally disconnected can make it difficult to communicate needs, and of course, feelings. Additionally, not being in touch with one’s emotions can create a sense that “no one understands,” which can cause isolation and detachment from friends and family.
- Feeling different from everyone else
Having gender dysphoria makes you feel different from everyone else. And although of course there are others who struggle with gender confusion, it is likely your teen feels very alone (whether they know they have gender dysphoria or not).
- Unhealthy coping
Many teenagers who have gender dysphoria either do not understand what they are experiencing or struggle to be open about it with friends or loved ones. This means they internalize difficult emotions which can eventually become overwhelming. Because of this, many teens with gender dysphoria will seek ways to cope, and often these ways of coping are unhealthy, such as turning to drugs or alcohol.
Ways You Can Support Your Transgender Teen
- Educate yourself – learning about issues concerning transgender youth and educating yourself on pertinent issues surrounding gender dysphoria is a great way to demonstrate your support of your child and feel more confident when talking to your child.
- Share your concerns – many parents shy away from being open about concerns regarding their child’s gender dysphoria out of fear of hurting the child.
- Ask questions – asking questions about your teen’s experience of gender dysphoria is a way to communicate openness, interest, and genuine caring. It can also help your child feel safe and may even encourage them to open up more to you.
- Use your teen’s preferred gender pronouns – your teen may prefer to be referred to by gender-neutral (also called “gender-inclusive”) pronouns. Using “they” and “their” are often considered gender-inclusive.
- Remind your teen of your unconditional love
- Don’t “out” your teenager – just because you support your teen, doesn’t mean you should share their story. Whether in transition, or still contemplating their gender, it is up to your teen to share (or not share) what they want with who they want.
- Be an advocate – speak up when you hear transphobic comments or actions; encourage others to respect your child’s identity.
Mental Health Issues in Teens with Gender Dysphoria
As research on gender dysphoria continues to emerges, it is becoming increasingly evident there is a connection between gender dysphoria and mental illness. In fact, throughout their lifetime, more than 70% of people with gender dysphoria will be diagnosed with a co-occurring mental illness. Some of the most common mental health disorders in teenagers with gender dysphoria are depression, anxiety, adjustment disorder, eating disorder, and bipolar disorder. The disturbance experienced in gender dysphoria is also evident in the research that shows teens and adults with gender dysphoria have a much higher instance of suicidal thoughts. Although there is no clear answer as to why, there are some potential reasons.
Transgendered and gender dysphoric individuals almost always experience some level or shame and/or stigma. Being the target of stigma and prejudice automatically increases one’s levels of stress. The higher one’s stress, the more likely they are to suffer from depression, anxiety, or substance abuse issues. Another reason why teens with gender dysphoria are more likely to struggle with mental illness may be connected to a deprivation of self. Being discriminated against, shamed, abused, and/or rejected (which many individuals with gender dysphoria are) has a significant impact on how one forms their personal identity. Not having a fully formed “self”, or not knowing who you are, can be confusing and scary, and thus contribute to mental health struggles.
If your teen has gender dysphoria, it is important to help them get support for the mental health struggle they may be enduring. Contact Polaris Teen at (844) 836-0222 to find out more about treatment options and services.
Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).