Is your child transgender? Maybe! And if that’s the case, why not ensure you’re accepting of gender non-conforming behaviour right from the get go? Isn’t non-judgmental acceptance the foundation of parental love anyways?
For some, that may be harder than expected. The path to empathy and compassion comes from understanding another’s viewpoint or experience. The same way we eradicate other prejudices applies here. Be it race, colour, religion, socio-economic status or what have you, people must get educated about the reality and experience of their fellow person — the transgender child included.
This post is my attempt at explaining transgender children’s experience. Of course every child’s experience is unique, but I hope this generalization is helpful and a good starting point to greater acceptance and understanding.
The Science Behind Transgender Kids
Transgender children don’t actively choose to be transgender any more than gay, lesbian or bisexuals choose their sexual orientation. The old practice of reparative therapy — which attempted to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity — has been proven both ineffective, immoral and is now illegal in Canada.
From conception, you are biologically a boy with XY chromosomes or biologically a female with XX chromosomes. During the first two months of pregnancy, the fetus develops the body structures of either a penis and testes or a vagina and ovaries. However, it isn’t until later that the brain develops the differentiation.
“It turns out that the sexual differentiation of the brain happens during the second half of pregnancy, later than the sexual differentiation of the genitals and body which begins during the first two months of pregnancy,” reports Richard A. Freidman of the New York Times. “And since these two processes can be influenced independently of each other it may be possible to have a mismatch between gender-specific brain development and that of the body.”
Thus, at birth you can be born a trans girl (a biological boy who feels they are actually a girl) or a trans boy (a biological girl who feels they are authentically a boy).
What Parents Need To Know
Of course as an infant, a parent would have no way of knowing if they gave birth to a transgender baby. However, from the first day of life a baby must make sense of the world around them and their place it in. In early infancy they watch others and very quickly conclude there are two types of people: boys and girls. Boys grow into men and girls grow into women.
Because the child authentically feels their gender identity from their brain structures and NOT from their body parts, trans girls (biological boys) will emulate the behaviours and mannerism of other girls and women. They mimic their mom, sisters, aunts and grandmas.
As a toddler they may play house, serve tea, want their nails painted pretty colours and dress in girls’ clothes or princess costumes. However, as trans girls grow up and enter preschool, the societal norms for how boys should act and play are far more restricting and limited to a “boy code.” That’s when the trans girl faces their first confusion when told they are not supposed to play with dolls, and when their desire to dress in girls clothes is refused by their parents. They may even say, “I want to be a girl.”
The pressure to conform and to fit in to society’s gender conforming behaviour often results in trans girls hiding their authentic selves. They become private about their feelings and desires. They stop acting authentically and start performing to meet societal expectations.
It’s a less difficult childhood to be a trans boy (biological girl) because society actually celebrates the qualities of a tomboy and there is a bigger range of acceptable behaviours for girls. A girl can play hockey without much notice, but a boy playing jump rope is more out of the ordinary.
As childhood continues, both trans boys and trans girls might struggle with peer friendships and fumble socially, feeling they don’t quit fit in with either their boy or girl friend groups.
As adolescence approaches, the onset of puberty can throw them into despair. Parents should watch for signs of anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation that can (though not always) occur at this time. The LGBT population is at far greater risk for bullying and has higher rates of suicide. They may turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.
The trans girl (biological boy) who had a tough childhood trying to adopt the boy code has an easier time in puberty, facing the new experience of having erections, which can be an unsettling experience. While heterosexual males are thinking about having sex with a girl, transgirls are actually thinking about having sex as a girl.
Transboys can experience the onset of menstruation as a shaming and emasculating event. The development of breasts is not welcomed and it is often at this point that they feel they can’t evade the reality of the division between their inner boy identity and their outward female body, which trans girls had to deal with from earlier on. Again, rates of mental issues and addiction can plague the teen years of a trans boy.
Coming out and living authentically takes a lot of courage because our society still tends to be very harsh, critical and judgmental towards transgender people. While the social climate is warming, we all have a part to play in being more accepting. Transgender children who are raised in accepting and loving communities where they are allowed to live out their gender identity authentically and are embraced for their true selves are happy adjusted people.
How Can We Ease The Journey?
- Don’t ever say “boys don’t do this” or “girls don’t do that."
- Never force a child to act in an unauthentic way.
- When a child says, “I want to be a boy/ girl,” answer by saying, “You can be whoever you want to be.”
- Tell your child you love them unconditionally just for who they are, right now, as is. And say it often. Better yet, show it.
- Discuss gender identity and what it means to be transgender. Use age appropriate language and explanations.
- Create a community of open-minded friends so your child is raised in a loving community of accepting adults and other children.
- Help them find a community of other transgender peers
- Advocate for them and encourage them to be an activist in their schools and communities too.
- Watch for stressors and offer professional support if needed.