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Five Ways Parents Can Support Gender-Expansive Children

Earlier today, HRC released Supporting and Caring for Transgender Children, a new guide to ensure that transgender young people are affirmed, respected, and able to thrive.

The guide, designed for community members and allies, also incorporates advice for parents raising  transgender or gender-expansive children.

Here are five important takeaways from the guide:

1)   Practice Patience:

Patience, support and careful listening to the child are the best “medicine” for a child exploring gender. However, some parents find a child’s changing or ambiguous gender identity and expression more stressful than a clear transgender identity. Although what a child says about their gender at a young age can hint at whether they’ll turn out to be transgender, there’s often no way to be sure.

Not knowing is hard for many parents and caregivers, so it can be tempting to encourage the child to “pick one”: to identify with their assigned sex or, in some cases, the “other” gender. Although families and communities may struggle with uncertainty, pressure (either to transition or to stop gender-expansive behaviors) can be harmful, so their patience and support are immensely important.

2)   Find Support:

At first, many parents and caregivers find it hard to understand and accept a child’s gender-expansive traits, or they worry that the child will be bullied if they express these traits in public. Be patient with yourself: It’s okay to struggle with this experience. It’s important to give yourself space to explore your feelings rather than sweeping them under the rug. That said, it’s equally important to protect your child from any negative feelings that surface.

A family therapist can help you balance your concerns with the affirmation your child needs. You may also seek out one of the numerous online and in-person groups for parents raising gender-expansive kids. Just like their kids, these parents are of every race, gender, religion and political background. Many aren’t yet sure whether their child is transgender. Don’t assume you won’t fit in!

3)   Consult Experts:

Competent, compassionate medical and mental health providers are vital resources for transgender and gender-expansive children and their families. They help parents and caregivers understand gender-expansive behavior and gender dysphoria, and they are important advocates with school officials. Gender-expansive children whose families work with a trusted medical provider are, on average, less anxious and depressed. Their families also have more effective coping strategies. Do the research to find medical and mental health providers that are right for you and your family.

4)   Make a Plan:

Some gender-expansive children are transgender, meaning they identify with a gender different than the one they were assigned at birth. These children’s gender journeys may include “transition”: a series of social changes that affirm their gender identity. Every transition process is unique, but a child may begin wearing clothes that affirm their gender identity, and may go by a new name and pronouns.

Family and community support are important during gender transition. For children, the family’s role is essential. Parents and guardians should work with therapists and healthcare providers to plan the transition. They must advocate for a transitioning child at school, with relatives and in other settings. Most important, they affirm and support the child through potential bumps in the road, which might include bullying, feeling “different” from peers or being excluded from social activities.

5)   Seek “Gender-Affirming” Experts:

“The most important way a parent can guide a child through this experience is by always remembering that parents have little control over their children’s gender identity, but tremendous influence over their child’s gender health.”-Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. Director of Mental Health Child and Adolescent Gender Center, San Francisco, CA

Clinicians increasingly embrace a “gender-affirming” approach to children who are gender-expansive or transgender. This approach means focusing on what the child says about their own gender identity and expression, and allowing them to determine which forms of gender expression feel comfortable and authentic.

Peter Tchoryk, the father of a 7-year-old transgender boy, recommends that parents learn as much as possible so that they can effectively advocate for their child—and said that, “without a doubt, affirming health providers can mean the difference between life and death.”