(The Conversation) – Young transgender or trans people face high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. These increased mental health risks are largely due to external factors such as discrimination, victimization and, most importantly, family rejection, and not to trans people.
Em Matsuno, a research associate at Palo Alto University, is developing and testing an online training program called the Parent Support Program to help parents better understand and support transgender youth. They spoke to The Conversation US about their findings and how parents can be better advocates — and avoid common missteps — when a child identifies as trans or non-binary.
What are common challenges for parents with trans children?
A big one is fear. Parents fear for their child’s safety. For example, they worry that their child will be bullied, so they may say, “No, I don’t want you to wear that to school.” Or if they don’t have knowledge about trans identities, they may feel overwhelmed or don’t know what to do. And they worry about screwing themselves up — saying or doing the wrong thing.
Another obstacle is the beliefs and attitudes that parents may have. Parents may have grown up with misconceptions about gender. For example: the belief that the sex assigned at birth—typically based on anatomy—is the same as one’s sex, or that the sex is exclusively male or female.
If the extended family or its community is conservative, the parents themselves may also experience rejection from others. People will tell you that letting your child transition is bad parenting. Sometimes parents have to risk being rejected by their loved ones and that can also put them in a difficult position.
What does research say about parenting support?
There was a 2016 study that showed trans children who were supported by their parents had similar mental health problems as a cisgender control group.
Certainly there are studies on trans youth with depression or suicidal thoughts. As a result, some people think transgender people are more likely to suffer from mental health risks. But we really see that it’s not about being trans, it’s about being supported or not.
One of the studies I worked on looked at different types of social support for trans youth – their friend/peer group, the trans community and their family. Of these three, family support was the strongest predictor of depression, anxiety, and resilience. It’s unfortunate because many trans people lose family support and have to rely on others, but family has the greatest impact.
Online resources advise parents to support a trans child by using their pronouns, standing up for them, educating themselves, and showing unconditional love. What would you add or emphasize?
Get your own support. Many times parents say they are 100% supportive and accepting, and yet they still feel feelings – sad or anxious – and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean you’re not supportive. But sharing all of your emotional struggles with your child can make them feel like a burden or cause you all that heartache. If parents cannot find other parents in their local community, there are online support groups. And get professional help if you can.
What common myths or disinformation do you find most disturbing?
The main one is “rapid onset gender dysphoria”. It sounds like a medical term but is not used at all in trans health and is based on flawed research. This often expresses itself in the thought: “Oh my God, all of a sudden my child is trans. They need to be influenced by their peers.”
Oftentimes, children hit puberty and suddenly they feel uncomfortable. Or maybe it’s happened before, but they haven’t shared it with a parent, so it feels sudden to the parent but not to the child.
There is also a lot of disinformation about gender-affirming medical care, which is a major stressor for many parents. There’s that fear, “What if they change their mind?”
Post-transition regrets are extremely rare. Puberty blockers are reversible and low-risk. Oftentimes, trans people don’t know what’s right for them until they’ve tried a few things. Yes, there are risks with medical procedures, but there are also significant risks associated with persistent gender dysphoria.
Why are more kids identifying as trans today?
Trans and non-binary people have always existed in all cultures and continents. So it’s nothing new. But there was an obliteration of that history.
Now there is more visibility, more acceptance, and younger generations are also learning about trans identities earlier. They have what trans actress and activist Laverne Cox calls “possibility models” where they can think, “Oh, that’s an option for me.” For many trans people my age and older, that wasn’t something we knew about.
What can parents say to show support when a trans child comes out?
Parents can acknowledge their child’s courage and show their gratitude by saying, “Thank you for letting me know.” Also, be explicit about your love for them. Trans children fear rejection when coming out, so very explicit support is important.
Common reactions are: “No, you are confused. You are only gay/lesbian. Are you sure?” Or asking too many questions, which the kid asks in court: “How did you know? When did you know?” They ask all these questions and the underlying message is “I don’t believe you.” or “I do not agree”.
A better approach is to say, “May I ask a few questions, or do you need some time?” Parents can also ask their child, “How can I support you?” that I use ‘he’ when I refer to you, don’t I? What sounds good to you?”
Any final advice for parents?
Learn to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty, and fluidity. Parents often want to know with certainty, stability and consistency who their child will be. This rigidity comes from fear.
But things won’t always be clear. Allow your child to come up with their own answers. I think there’s a lot to explore with kids, so things can change and that’s okay. Parents’ openness allows them to be who they are.