Dr Annabel Chan, Clinical Psychologist
Is a child in your life transgender? Do you think they might be? Are you feeling confused or overwhelmed, and wondering what it will mean for your family?
Relax, because it’s okay to be uncertain! Having a transgender child doesn’t mean parents and carers will instantly know everything about the topic - it’s a learning path a family can travel together. All you need is the willingness to learn, grow, and become an empowered parent.
While Australian data are still coming together, we know at least 1.4 million adults in the United States are living as transgender. Your child is not alone, and needs support to grow into a healthy and self-accepting adult.
To get that going, here are 5 simple tips to help you and your transgender child, no matter where you both are on the journey.
1.There is no right time for acceptance.
Parents sometimes shy away from discussing sex and sexuality with children, opting to “wait till they are older” and avoid awkwardness or uncomfortable questions. Unfortunately, without an environment that includes safe, open discussions about gender and sexual identities, a child can feel anxious about coming out to their loved ones.
Take the lead! Create a family culture of openness and non-judgement that includes non-confronting conversations about sexuality and gender. Try discussing a movie or TV character with your teen - “Hey, Penguin doesn’t seem to be sexually attracted to any other characters in Gotham. Maybe he’s asexual. What do you think?”
2. Accept who they are, don’t assume who they are.
If a child might be transgender, go with the flow, and don’t dismiss it as “just a phase”. It’s true that some children who identify as trans later change their mind, but this is a low percentage. Even if your child is part of this small group, there is no harm in accepting their identity now.
Remember that not every transgender child will want to transition, have surgery or hormonal treatment, wear a certain type of clothing, change their hobbies, or is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or pansexual. Listen to your child about what being trans means to them, and let their individuality lead the way.
Oh, and be careful about “mis-gendering” a child by unconsciously using terms and expectations that don’t fit their true gender. Not every girl likes wearing dresses, and not all boys are aggressive or into sports. Your child can identify with a gender without accepting stereotypes! This can be as basic as using their birth name instead of their chosen name - Jill might have been “Jack” at birth, but calling her that denies part of her identity.
Families will slip up, and parents might even feel hurt by their child choosing a new name, but it’s okay to apologise, accept, and move forward.
There’s no right way to be trans.
3. Learn. Learn. Learn.
Overwhelmed parents, trying to keep up with new terminologies and expectations, can sometimes wish for “the good old days”, when everyone was just male, female and straight.
But remember, transgender people, along with all the other colours on the LGBTIQA+ rainbow, have always existed, but were forced into silence or punished for speaking out. Even though the rate of change can seem exhausting, this is how we create a world where transgender children can grow up safe and healthy.
There used to be only two kinds of bread, but life is richer with chia seed loaves and sourdough!
Speaking of bread, meet...
The fantastic and adorable Genderbread Person is a great and simple way for parents to discuss the differences between sex, gender, attraction, and expression with their child.
Who knows, you may not be as heteronormative as you thought you were!
4. Be their protective factor.
People who identify as transgender have significantly higher rates of mental illness and suicide, which is sometimes used to argue against transgender acceptance. But being trans isn’t the problem - it’s the discrimination, stigma, and abuse they can face daily, and compromises their wellbeing.
Being transgender is not a mental illness, and a child’s gender identity is not a symptom that needs treatment. Therapy can, however, help your child find new ways to cope with the challenges of being transgender in a world that hasn’t reached full acceptance, so consider sending your child to a transgender-friendly psychotherapist.
Be their loudest and proudest advocate but never “out” your child - they can choose who to share their transgender status with. No one needs to know until your child is ready to tell them. The best way you can advocate and show solidarity is to give your child control over their own story.
Fun fact: family support is the strongest predictor of health and happiness for transgender people. Offer your child this unconditional support, and watch them flourish into a happy, healthy adult.
5. Seek your own support.
Parents of transgender children may face stigma, unkindness from friends or relatives, challenges with their religious or cultural communities, and struggles with changed expectations of their child’s future.
Seeking your own professional support may help to manage the challenges of being in a transgender family, and provide strengths that protect you and your child. Find a local or online support group. Engage in psychotherapy. Learn from the lived experiences of transgender people.
Come to terms with your child’s identity, and be a leader and champion for our first generation of free and accepted transgender Australians!
Thank you greatly to Michelle Sheppard (link: https://mishsheppard.com/), trans woman, colleague, and friend, for her input and guidance to this article.
If you and/or your child can benefit from support from trained and diversity-friendly psychologists, give us a call today! Hopscotch and Harmony provides safe and judgement-free therapeutic spaces for children, teenagers, and parents who may need a little boost and guidance on your journey of self-discovery.
by Jessica Cleary, Psychologist
As a parent you have the opportunity to be your child's most influential educator in regards to all things sexuality and reproductive health. The problem is, many parents feel awkward about having these conversations and are not really sure how to begin. So some parents don't go there at all to avoid the discomfort.
If you avoid teaching your child about sexuality then you run the risk of someone else doing it for you. Sex ed programs in schools can teach some information, but the other biggest influencer these days is what kids read and see on the internet.
With the average age of first exposure to pornography around 11 years (with some researchers stating it is as young as 8), we need to be proactive in educating our children. If we don't then children and teens might learn that the violence and unrealistic behaviour demonstrated in readily accessible mainstream pornography is normal sexual behaviour.
So, let's go back to the beginning...
Name it, don't shame it!
Cutesy body part nicknames instead of scientific terms are really not appropriate if we want to empower our children to have positive body image. If it is difficult for you to use anatomically correct words to describe genitals, think about why that is. Did you inherit this discomfort from your own parents?
We don't want our children to feel that there is anything shameful about their bodies. By encouraging the use of correct body part names we send the message that their body is normal - whether that body part be a shoulder, penis, liver, clitoris, scrotum or knee. It's body science!
When we don't use the name of certain body parts we send the message that those words are not to be spoken. This can lead to children feeling shame about their bodies and can discourage children asking questions about sexual development and seeking help when needed. Instead they might look to the internet to get their answers.
Additionally, if something of concern were to happen to a child regarding inappropriate touch, then it's harder for the child to communicate this to a trusted adult in a way that is understood.. "He touched my noodle" isn't going to get the same attention as "he touched my penis".
Getting your vaginas confused with your vulvas?
It doesn't help that many of us adults haven't been taught anatomically correct terms for our reproductive and sexual anatomy. Unfortunately, it's pretty common for girls in particular to not know the correct names of their body parts. Knowing the accurate names helps in a medical situation or in abuse situations. (FYI: the vulva is the external female genital organs and the vagina is the internal organ connecting the genital organs to the uterus).
It's never too early to have THE talk...
Actually, you never have to have THE talk. Instead, speak early and speak often about all parts of the body and all things sexuality as they come up. The more you talk about the body the easier it will be for both of you. And when the more curly questions start rolling in you can continue the conversation in age appropriate terms. If your child isn't asking any questions then take the lead with having resources available for them to look it if they are interested. If you need some age-appropriate ideas then check out these reading materials.
If you're taken off-guard with a particularly tricky question, say "That's a very interesting and important question. Let me have a think about it and I'll answer it for you tonight". Make sure you do address it! Don't chicken out.
...but it's also never too late to start the conversation
If you have older kids and are worried because you have never talked to them about sex stuff, then be assured that it's never too late. Strike up a conversation and admit: "You know, I realise that I should have started talking to you about relationships and sex earlier than now, but I would really like to change that." Let them know that you want to be there to answer questions and to help problem solve when issues arise.
Is your embarrassment getting the better of you?
You've gotta just rip that bandaid off and do it! You might feel uncomfortable at first but this feeling will pass, especially when your children just take the information in their stride, as kids generally do.
If you have young children then nappy changes or bath time are ideal opportunities to name genitals just as you do other body parts. After you do it a few times your discomfort will subside.
Looking through books on the reproductive system with your primary school aged child sends the message that you are the go-to person when they have questions and are curious about something to do with sex. Don't make a big deal about it, answer questions in a casual way, and have books on the reproductive system accessible just like you do with other science books on astronomy and the environment.
If you are really struggling, just be honest. Start with "I feel a bit embarrassed talking about this because my parents and I never spoke about these things when I was growing up. But I think it's really important for you to know so I'll give it my best shot." Tell them that "You can always ask me any question you have and I'll do my best to answer it."
It's up to us parents to manage the discomfort that we might have around sexuality and the body so we can be the primary source of information for our kids. A child's questions are often simple and not sexual and deserve to be met with positivity, openness, and accuracy.
You've got this!