Understanding Transgender Children

Do you know transgender people? It is likely that you do, even if you don’t know they are transgender. It is also likely that your children know people who identify as transgender or  “trans.” You may be wondering what is happening to gender in today’s world. 

Gendered labels for human beings (“girl,” “boy”) are generally determined by visual examination of a baby either during a prenatal exam or at birth. (Less commonly, a genetic test may be done to identify sex chromosomes.) This generally happens long before the child is conversant, so it is only later that children recognize that their anatomy identifies them to others as belonging to a gender.  

Between the age when children begin to talk and the age of puberty, some children protest being identified as a particular gender. Research suggests that between 50 to 80% of these children will eventually resolve this and claim congruence with their gender or sex characteristics,¹while some children’s gender nonconformity will persist throughout adolescence and into adulthood. 

To make matters even more complicated, some children’s distress related to gender nonconformity begins after puberty, with no prior history of gender questioning. 

What is to be done with children who protest identifying as the sex or gender they have been known as since birth?  

Science tells us little about how sex chromosomes interact with sociology to create gendered experiences in the brain. However, most mental health professionals who work with children recognize that personal identification with a gender involves complex interactions of individual physiology and psychology. 

What recent research does tell us is that children’s mental health seems best served by our responding to their growing self-awareness with interest and acceptance rather than with our own certainty.² 

Let’s meet Miles, a female-to-male transgender 17-year old, and his mom, Wendy. 

Miles: My trans journey started began in third grade. I started feeling really self-conscious about my body. Something felt very wrong about it. I just didnt feel right about being a girl. When I turned 14, things got really tough. I felt depressed and anxious all of the time. I started cutting myself as a way to cope. Then I started binging and purging. With stronger questions about my gender, I started to become suicidal. I was hospitalized four times for suicidal attempts and ideation.  

Things started to get better when I started to accept myself. At first, I wasnt sure if I wanted to be transgender or agender [without any gender at all], but as soon as I tried being a boy, it felt perfect. It was super hard to come out as a boy, but it was a huge turning point in my life. I started to use healthy coping skills. I started telling myself hundreds of times a day, I am worth it. I am enough. I am loved. I still struggle today with self-esteem. But I am SO much happier today. 

Wendy:  For many years, we were a typical family. I was a stay-at-home mom of four children. Miles is the youngest. We were all active in church and the kids did well at school. The biggest change in our lives was when we went from one boy and three girls to two boys and two girls. But we still love being together and are united in supporting each other  no matter what. In most ways, Miles is a typical kid. And in some ways, hes extraordinary. This journey has turned him into the most courageous person I know. 

Next time: Part 2 — What is Gender Dysphoria? 

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Written by Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, LMFT