Understanding Transgender Youth

BlogFamiliesJan 20 2015

There are a lot of things about your child.

Your child is tall.
Your child is athletic.
Your child is good at math.
Your child is artistic.
Your child is transgender.
Your child is curly-haired.
Your child is easy-going.

The recent apparent suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn has been highlighted in the news, and is indicative of the kind of turmoil some youth face when the gender they know themselves to be doesn’t match the gender associated with the biological sex of the body they were born into. Parents and other adults often lack the resources needed to help support youth as they come to terms with this aspect of their identity. Although we know there are many factors that contribute to a child’s decision to die by suicide, for Leelah, it might have been that the hope of immediate escape from this turmoil overshadowed any realization that she’d eventually become an adult and have full control over her medical decisions and the way she would live her life.

In a social media post found after her death, Leelah articulated struggles she’d faced with her parents and other adults—lack of understanding and support.

Many parents struggle with the knowledge that their child is transgender,* and this is certainly understandable. It can be difficult for a parent who has known a child as a daughter to then have a son, or vice versa. And, parents’ worldviews or belief structures may be based in large part on a strict gender binary in which men and women play distinct roles, making fluidity difficult.

More than that, though, parents may want their child to be able to avoid any threats to their safety, social struggles, or health concerns that could come with living as a gender that society would view as discordant with biological sex. Parents want their children to have happy lives, and they might believe that helping their child try to forget or change feelings related to gender will facilitate this happiness in the long-run.

For transgender children and youth, though, parental support can have a strong impact on well-being. Conversely, perceived rejection can increase transgender youths’ risk for mental and physical health problems. The American Psychological Association states that forcing the child to act in concert with their sex is not helpful, and recommends that parents work with schools or other institutions in their child’s life to ensure their child’s safety and address any needs their child may have.

Here are some resources for parents who have a child they think or know is transgender:

American Psychological Association

PFLAG’s Transgender Network

Central Toronto Youth Services’ Families in Transition

Gender Spectrum

TransYouth Family Allies

TransActive Gender Center

Sylvia Rivera Law Project

The Human Rights Campaign

National Center for Transgender Equality

The Family Acceptance Project

Journal of GLBT Family Studies

Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism’s Endocrine Treatment of Transsexual Persons

*We use the term transgender as an umbrella term, for ease, with the knowledge that there is a multiplicity of terms people use to self-identify with relation to their gender identity.