A Guide for Parents: Supporting Transgender Teens

by | Jun 6, 2018 | Parenting Tips, Resources, Transgender

transgender teen

This article will attempt to answer common questions that parents may have about teen transgenderism. Though the subject of being transgender has recently gained increased attention due to various social movements and media coverage, transgenderism is something that has existed among human populations for thousands of years. In fact, the concept of transgenderism (or the existence of more than two possible genders) can be found in texts and works created by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Native Americans, and numerous other civilizations.

But despite the fact that transgenderism seems to have naturally existed for a very long time, the 21st Century has witnessed a new set of issues. Individuals who identify as transgender or non-binary are statistically more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and numerous other mental health issues. They are also more likely to experience bullying and feel alienated from their peers. If you are a parent of a teenager who identifies as transgender or is experiencing any variety of gender dysphoria, this may be a useful guide to help you better understand what your teenager is experiencing.

What does it mean to be transgender?

A person can be considered transgender if they identify as a gender that is different than the one that they were “assigned” at birth. Most children will initially be assigned the gender male or female when they are born (however, there are plenty of examples of babies who do not conform to either of these definitions). Biologically sexual males will have an XY chromosome in their DNA while biologically sexual females will have an XX chromosome.

In many cases, an individual’s biological sex and gender will be the same. But, for roughly 1.4 million Americans—approximately 0.6% of the population—there will be a degree of disconnect between their gender and their sex. The sole qualification for being considered transgender is identifying as a gender other than the label that they were initially given. Being transgender is distinctively different than simply liking things that are typically associated with the opposite sex.

An individual’s hobbies, interests, activities, and even their sexual orientation do not determine what gender they are. Unlike sex, gender is a concept that can be fluid. Though gender identity is something that can certainly be confusing, the overwhelming number of individuals who claim they are transgender are making a legitimate claim and are experiencing something distinctively different than what many parents wrongly choose to describe as “just a phase.”

What is the difference between gender and sex?

Though the terms “gender” and “sex” are often used interchangeably, they actually have very different meanings. While sex is a product of biology (the physical anatomy of a person’s reproductive system), gender is a social construct that is a product of an individual’s identity.

In order for a person’s sex to change, they will need to experience some sort of physical altercation. Individuals who have changed their sex—often known as “transitioning”—are typically referred to as transsexuals. Being transgender is distinctively different than being transsexual. Because being transgender is a product of identity, no physical change needs to occur in order for that person’s claim of transgenderism to be legitimate.

While the two most common genders are male and female, there are also many different individuals who consider themselves to be non-binary. This means that they identify as something other than male or female which—because gender is explicitly linked to personal identity—is something that is as determined by the individual as their name. Though changing your name from Margaret to Maggie does not carry the same social and emotional baggage as changing your gender, what is important to remember in this scenario is that the choice remains up to the individual.

What does gender dysphoria mean?

The discourse on gender is not something that is reserved for those in academia, but it is actually something that affects every single person. Individuals who are cisgender—meaning that their biological sex and gender are the same and they identify as the gender they were assigned at birth—often have difficulty understanding what it may be like to have an identity crisis due to the fact that they identify with the “default” option.

If you are a cisgender parent, imagine if someone came to you and told you were a gender you do not identify as. Remember, though they are strongly correlated, gender and sex are not the same things. Your gender is not determined by your biological makeup. If you identify as a female and someone came to you and identified you as a male (or vice versa), you would likely be bothered by that. Now, imagine if that same thing occurred to you almost every day of your life.

Gender dysphoria is defined as “significant and durational distress caused when a person’s assigned birth gender is not the same as the one which they identify.” Essentially, gender dysphoria is what occurs when an individual realizes that they have been labeled as something they are not. Many transgender adults claim this is something they have felt throughout their entire life.

How do I know if my teenager identifies as transgender?

As stated, transgenderism is not “just a phase” or something that people do because it is “trendy” or they are “looking for attention.” By definition, individuals who are experiencing gender dysphoria feel the way that they do for a durational period of time.

The only sure way you can know if your teenager is transgender is if they tell you that they are transgender. Gender is a product of their identity and, consequently, that it means it is up to them to determine how they want to be identified. Many individuals withhold their true identity from their family for many years because they have fears of being rejected, denied, or otherwise ostracized by their loved ones. If your teenager does have the courage to tell you what they are going through, it is very important that you make an effort to hear them out and take them seriously.

What are some of the common issues faced by transgender teenagers?

As you likely remember, the teenage years are a time that—even for cisgender individuals—are characterized by a significant amount of confusion and an effort to forge a lasting identity. For individuals who are transgender, these years can be even more difficult.

There are many different issues that transgender individuals experience at a higher rate than their peers.

  • Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder
  • Various eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, etc.)
  • Patterns of self-harm and suicide ideation
  • Difficulty finding long-term employment (largely due to discrimination)
  • Bullying and abuse from other people

No parent wants to see their teenager suffer from any of the issues mentioned above. However, denying their identity will not change who they are and not decrease the risk of suffering. In fact, denying your teenager’s identity will likely only make things worse. They are counting on you as a source of love and support.

How can I help my transgender teenager?

Fortunately, the 21st century is one that has seen an increased interest in transgender studies and, as a result, there are now many more resources available than there were in the past. Being a parent of a transgender teenager can sometimes seem challenging, but it is important to remember that your role is to love and support them unconditionally.

If you are the parent of a transgender teenager, there are many different things that you can do to help them.

  • Listen to them, let them know that you believe them, accept them, and remind them that you are there to help
  • Recognize that they are more than their gender identity—as is the case with cisgender individuals, your gender identity is just a tiny fraction of who you are as a person
  • Connect them with support groups and places with other transgender individuals
  • Help them find a licensed psychologist who has a firm understanding of what they are uniquely experiencing
  • Offer unconditional love and support

As time goes on, the public understanding of transgenderism is something that will continue to improve. If you are the parent of a transgender individual, you may be in a position you would have thought would occur. But even though transgender individuals compose just a small portion of our society, that does not mean they are unworthy of love, respect, and basic human dignity.

Polaris specializes in the treatment of gender dysphoria in LGBTQ youth. To learn more about our residential programs, or to speak to our admissions specialist about LGBTQ & transgender-specific treatments, contact our team at (844) 836-0222 today.

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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).