This story originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Latina magazine
Teaching our children to be true to themselves means embracing their gender identity—even when it doesn’t align with their sexual anatomy. To mark National LGBT Pride Month, here are some ways parents of transgender children can educate themselves, become their kids’ fiercest advocates, and create a supportive home environment.
Read the signs: “Gender identity isn’t so much what you do but who you feel you are,” says Ximena Lopez, M.D., medical director of the GENECIS Program at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. This recognition can begin in early childhood. A child with male genitalia might ask to be addressed by a female name. Other signs include favoring clothing typically associated with the opposite sex, or an aversion to their own naked bodies.
Don’t jump to conclusions: Lillian Rivera, who heads LGBTQ advocacy at New York City’s Hetrick-Martin Institute, says we need to view gender identity as a spectrum and allow children freedom to play with different roles. A 3-year-old boy, for instance, might go through a phase in which he enjoys playing with dolls; that doesn’t necessarily mean he is transgender. “With transgender children,” Rivera says, “there is a consistent communication that says, ‘There is not an alignment between my assigned sex and how I see myself.’ It’s persistent.”
Embrace their truth: “Parents often blame themselves, or they want to fix the situation, but you can’t ‘fix’ a child’s gender identity,” Rivera emphasizes. “If you try, you will hurt them, because you’re communicating that what they’re doing is wrong.” Above all, Rivera says, parents should convey the unconditional nature of their love.
Remain on high alert during adolescence: Transgender youths often face hostility, social isolation and violence. The risk of depression, self-harm and suicide for transgender youths is high, increasing greatly around ages 12 and 13. “Adolescence is a critical period when transgender children’s distress, especially surrounding their bodies, intensifies,” Dr. Lopez says.
Rack up resources: Websites like Glaad.org and PFLAG.org provide parents with resources ranging from publications to listings of online and community-based support groups. Rivera also suggests that parents expose their children to books they’ll find relatable: For young kids, Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy; for teens, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish. Rivera says “it’s important for kids to know that there are other people just like them, so they can see the possibilities for their lives.”
Enlist a professional: To navigate potential challenges at home or school, where transgender children often feel alienated, parents should seek the help of a therapist who can properly evaluate gender identity issues in children. Because of the challenges of diagnosing toddlers, Dr. Lopez advises waiting until kids are around 5 years old.