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July 19, 2023 Feature

How to Support Your Non-Binary or Transgender Child

Jodi Argentino

Everyone has a gender identity. Gender identity develops between 1.5 and 3 years old. However, cisgender people do not pay attention to their identity as something present in their lives, because their gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. Therefore, there is no disconnect; nothing feels incongruent. When children are young, they are essentially trained by their parents, family, and caregivers to act/be/dress/play according to the societal norms associated with their sex assigned at birth, even before birth, with pink and blue balloons, clothing, and decoration. This is not because of nefarious goals of parents, but simply because most parents are also (consciously or unconsciously) subject to the pressures of societal norms. Therefore, unless a child recognizes that something does not feel right within their own self or that something different feels more right to them, the issue of gender identity may not arise until later in childhood, or even adulthood.

For some children, these dysphoric or incongruent feelings arise early in life but may mask as behavioral issues, anxieties, or attention issues. For other children, these feelings and expressions may be recognized by their caregivers and those children may be affirmed as to their gender expression at an early age. Other caregivers may attempt to deliberately deny their child’s gender expression if it does not match the child’s sex assigned at birth. Many transgender children do not manifest their strong dysphoric feelings until their teens as that is when puberty starts and their bodies start changing to include features predominantly associated with gender (i.e., hair growth, voice changes, and breast development). Until puberty, our bodies are relatively androgynous, so it is only with puberty onset that the clash between gender identity feelings and physical realities occurs.

With most tween/teens, concerns are about getting good grades, writing successful college applications, making a desired sports team, or passing a driver’s test. Caregivers experience those emotions and rollercoasters with their children within their family system. Unfortunately, the statistics show that, in reality, the biggest concern for caregivers of non-binary and transgender children is keeping them alive. The 2022 Trevor Project Survey estimated that 53 percent of transgender and non-binary youth have seriously contemplated death by suicide over the last 12 months. Thus, the primary key to having a healthy child when your child is non-binary or transgender, is simply, and crudely, to have your child not attempt death by suicide. More than that, the key really is helping the child not feel like they would rather die than to be experiencing their own life, in their own body, authentically. Some would say this is an alarmist or hyperbolized statement, but sadly, it is statistically accurate. Education, family acceptance, and limitless affirmation must become the focus for families and society. The issue of affirmation is essential because it single-handedly and extremely changes the course of young people’s lives. Pursuant to that aforementioned 2022 Trevor Project survey, family support reduced the suicide rate for LGBTQ+ children to approximately 6 percent. That is an astonishing decrease for something as simple a concept as supporting and loving a child for who they are.

Social science tells us that parental acceptance has been defined as “the warmth, affection, care, comfort, concern, nurturance, support or simply love that children can experience from their parents” and further tells us that same is important, if not essential, to the development, well-being, and health of children. Imagine sharing the most amazing experience with a loved one—then imagine that this is possible simply by supporting a transgender or non-binary child. Gender euphoria is the positive (“euphoric”) feelings associated with being affirmed in a true gender identity and being able to express same freely and authentically. Similar to those clips on social media where a baby grins ear to ear when they hear their parent’s voice for the first time, or can see clearly with a pair of glasses, the world becomes a freer and more colorful place for gender-diverse children who are wrapped in a blanket of affirmation. This is not to say that societal pressures are not still prevalent or impactful, particularly with the current state of persecution of the transgender community across parts of the United States. However, that affirmation by parents to support their child in living authentically in a supportive environment can literally be the difference between life and death.

A puzzled well-meaning colleague once asked why I had stated in a presentation that, for some children, school is their only safe place to express themselves. Sometimes we don’t realize that the way we think may not be everyone’s truth. The fact that this colleague asked that question revealed that we shared a mindset: the inconceivability that their child would feel they could not be open and honest with their parent about their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, it is important, as a practitioner, to remember that, even if this is your own mindset, it is not the mindset of all parents or all clients who will request your services. Similarly, I have encountered a judge who essentially refused to believe that a parent could not put aside their own biases long enough to just spend some time with a gender-diverse child without commenting on the child’s appearance or without name-calling the child. Because it was inconceivable to that judge, that judge allowed that parent unsupervised access to that child without requiring education and support. Sadly, at every opportunity, that parent made negative commentary about shoes, hair, nails, color choice, and friend group. While well-intentioned, there is a bit of naiveté in most of us, assuming that parents will do what is best for their child, because the alternative is inconceivable. As practitioners and those charged with the well-being of children, we must constantly remember that everyone, including parents sitting before us, have their own schemas, backgrounds, and/or disordered personalities, which may cloud their ability to unconditionally support their own child. You may find yourself on the other side of that consultation or bench, where a parent is arguing that their child should not be in charge of their own gender identity or expression. This is an opportunity for education, an opportunity to make a difference, an opportunity to help that individual support their child instead of continuing to risk losing their child. Reliable information and appropriate education is key.

The Trevor Project: 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health is a great resource and, thus, referenced numerous times throughout this article because it provides tips and tricks as well as realities and statistics. Within that survey, the authors lay out the five most common ways for parents to affirm their LGBTQ+ child. While there is a difference between saying affirming things and creating a truly affirming environment (discussed further below), this list serves as a jumping off point because the issue of affirmation has become so unnecessarily politicized when the concepts are so incredibly basic:

  1. Be welcoming to a child’s LGBTQ+ friends and partners.
  2. Talk respectfully about a child’s LGBTQ+ identity.
  3. Use a child’s chosen names and pronouns correctly.
  4. Support a child’s gender expression.
  5. Educate yourself about LGBTQ+ people and issues.

That’s it. This is not onerous—this is not political. It’s really as simple as respecting a child. However, below I review each of these five most common ways for parents to affirm their children and break it down even further to everyday life scenarios.

Welcome Your Child’s LGBTQ+ Friends and Partners

It is important for transgender students to see themselves reflected in their staff, their lessons, their heroes, and to feel the support of their school and peers. Research associated with relational-cultural identity development shows that supportive environments with peers and role models that reflect students’ own identities is necessary for positive minority youth development.

“I let my kid have friends over all the time” is different from, “I welcome all of my child’s friends.” This can be as subtle as a look or eyeroll when a child mentions a particular friend coming over to your home. After a while, a child will stop asking. Similarly, if your child’s friend is in your home and you make comments about their appearance (either when there or to your child afterwards), this will also impact your child negatively. This person is someone to whom your child relates. Perhaps that is a chance for you to let your child know that you are not judging this other child’s appearance, identity, or expression. Maybe your child is testing your reaction to another child because it’s safer than testing your reaction to your own child.

I heard someone on the court record accurately state that he told his son he could invite his friends over for a pool swim. What he left out was that when they all left, he proceeded to comment to his child about the “freaks” and “losers” that his child had invited and wondered aloud why the child would be friends with those other children. That parent didn’t even realize that by his judgment of the child’s friend group, he was calling his child those names.

Talk Respectfully to Your Child about Their Identify

I’m going to take this a step further. Talk respectfully to your child about all identities because you never know what theirs might be!

I encountered another child in my family law journeys who had remembered overhearing a conversation their mother had with a friend of hers. The child heard their mother speak negatively about a transgender adult in their lives, who the child has witnessed the mother call a friend. The mother did not say these things to the child, but unknowingly within earshot of the child. The child heard it, and it made an impact. About three years later, the child came out about their own non-binary identity and their mother was the last to know because the child was so fearful about the mother’s reaction. There was then a rift in the parent-child relationship that grew into anger and resentment on both sides. Had the child not overhead the negative commentary in the first place, it might have resulted in a far more healthy outcome than one with a persistent resist-refuse dynamic. Rejection by a child of a non-affirming parent is very common (and is not “alienation”).

Use Your Child’s Chosen Names and Pronouns

Using a child’s chosen name has been shown to decrease depression and suicidal ideation—just using a different name from the one given to the child at birth and just giving the child autonomy to use a name that feels right. If, in any other context, someone said, “Call your child John instead of Bill and it could save his life,” it would be a no-brainer. However, when the request is to call your child Joan instead of John, it takes on a layer of additional significance, both insofar as parental refusal to do so and as the depth of meaning for that child. Using a chosen name is a reflection of acceptance of who your child is telling you they are.

Pronouns fall into that same category. Let’s start with the pronoun “they” as singular. “They” has roots as a singular pronoun predating Shakespeare and is in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as singular. We use “they” in the singular every single day without noticing, but it somehow becomes a big deal when intentional. For example, a student leaves a cell phone in class. The teacher says, “Oh no! Someone left their cell phone here. I hope they come back for it.” One student—unknown—is a “they” singular. However, if its Jax, who uses a “they” pronoun, it is (apparently) more difficult to say, “Oh no! Jax left their cell phone here. I hope they come back for it.” I’ve heard a college professor express “how am I expected to remember everyone’s pronouns?” I simply pointed out that the professor already uses everyone’s pronouns (and names); this is just a matter of being intentional rather than presumptuous.

Support Your Child’s Gender Expression

A judge once asked me where the line is between a parent’s authority to create rules for their child and the child’s right to self-expression. I think that’s actually a good question, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. My reply is as follows: If your rule for your household is that no child wears eyeshadow until age 15, then that is your parental rule; however, if your rule is that Joe doesn’t wear eyeshadow because he’s a boy, that is discrimination. Thus, my rule of thumb is that if it applies universally regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, then it’s a parenting decision. If the application is dependent upon gender identity or sexual orientation, then there’s likely an issue and you should check yourself.

Also, at some point, parents have to make a bigger choice: is disallowing self-expression worth the negative psychological consequences? If short hair is going to help your child feel more comfortable in their own body, what is actually the problem with short hair?

Further, for transgender and nonbinary people, seeing photos of themselves from the past, may be painful, as is hearing a prior name or pronoun. As nostalgic as the moment may feel as a parent, its simply not worth the pain it could bring for your child. Also, if your child sets a boundary and asks that you not share photos or use their prior name, just respect that boundary.

It is a common argument of non-affirming or even faux-affirming parents (I am using this term for parents who present as affirming by saying the right things but are not actually supportive) that they will allow their child to make their own decisions about hormone blockers or hormone replacement therapy “when they are 18.” Parents must know that by failing to allow clinically appropriate medical treatment for adolescents, they are actually making the decision for that child, with the decision likely being contrary to the child’s needs. By way of example, if a child who is assigned male at birth, but is a transgender female, is precluded from appropriate clinical treatment, that child is forced to go through testosterone-based puberty and their body goes through irreversible changes associated with that puberty (hair growth being one example for teens). That child cannot ever undo that biological (or psychological) change of having gone through puberty incongruent with their gender identity. Therefore, the parent who says “wait until you are 18” is not actually allowing the child to decide at age 18 but has decided for them by precluding them from access to clinically appropriate care. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health has provided guidelines for appropriate clinical treatment for transgender children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has provided guidance for appropriate clinical treatment. With anything else, parents would not hesitate to follow their doctor’s recommendations to save their child’s life. Query: why is this different?

Educate Yourself about LGBTQ+ People and Issues

I’m going to clarify this one: educate yourself accurately about LGBTQ+ people and issues. There is a wealth of bad information out there. Find reputable resources, such as The Trevor Project, not Reddit, to learn more about gender identity. Review the five-step guide provided earlier by The Trevor Project as to what to do to help your transgender or non-binary child be healthy and safe—a list of “to-do” items that a court could (and should) easily order, a list of “to-do” items that could keep your child alive. Hopefully, that’s a start. Find reputable support groups (e.g., PFLAG, GLSEN). Look for sneaky wolves in sheep’s clothing because groups labeled “parents’ rights” may actually be one that is more focused on the parent than the child. If in doubt, call your local LGBTQ+ support organization for references (or email me!).

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Jodi Argentino

Offit Kurman’s New Jersey/ New York Family Law Practice

Jodi Argentino is a principal with Offit Kurman’s New Jersey/ New York Family Law Practice. In addition to practicing family law for more than two decades, Jodi also has her Master of Science in Child and Adolescent Developmental Psychology. Jodi’s practice is focused on complex areas of family law, including working with LGBTQ+ families, neurodiverse individuals, high-conflict personalities, interjurisdictional challenges, parentage disputes, international considerations, and cultural differences.