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Supporting Trans Youth: Parental Anxiety

One of the main challenges parents of trans and nonbinary youth express to me is something they often share with their kids: feeling alone and unsupported. That feeling has changed in recent years. It’s hard to separate parental reactions to a child coming out, or asking for support with names, pronouns, clothes, and other kinds of transition from how trans youth are the targets of political movements, sensational journalism, and disinformation. The chorus of voices dramatizing trans youth has grown incredibly loud. One of its main strategies has been to sow confusion, doubt, and suspicion in parents.

In this environment, the root problem for parents who want to be supportive of their kids is often not rejection, but fear. Afraid that they can’t protect their child from a genuinely hostile world, it feels caring to put up roadblocks, to say no or “not yet.” We are all bombarded with negative messages about trans people and encouraged to agonize over young people’s gender, which amps up the stakes.

My recommendation to parents, family, and friends of trans youth flows from one principle: care for them by endeavoring to de-dramatize their hopes and needs. Turning down the volume is the first step to working through your fears and insecurities in a constructive manner, without imposing them on your child. It’s also a way to free yourself up to genuinely listen to, learn from, and actively support what your kid is telling you they want and need.

Perhaps the most successful disinformation about trans youth today is that young people are somehow influenced into being trans through peer pressure. The reason that claim is popular despite being untrue is that it deliberately takes advantage of parental anxiety. When a kid comes out to their parent or asks adults to change how they treat them, usually they have been privately thinking about that decision for a long time. What looks new or unexpected to adults is the endpoint of deep reflection. Rather than being a sudden change, it’s the tentative end of careful concealment that developed to avoid bullying and rejection. Coming out doesn’t create a trans identity, it just announces it.  

If we were to de-dramatize this moment, the guiding questions for parents might shift from “is my child really trans?”, or “wouldn’t their life be easier if they weren’t trans?”, to “what love and support am I being asked for right here, right now?” The medicalized story told about trans people in the media has reinforced that idea that we should have to prove someone can’t be forced out of being trans before we accept and support them. That premise hides a value judgement: that being trans is tragic, or inferior. It’s a painful message for youth to receive from parents and adults.

Working together, towards a cultural shift that values young trans people’s courage in asking for recognition and support, begins in each relationship a child or teenager has with an adult. Instead of reiterating the message that who they are and what they want is a high-stakes drama, to be scrutinized, questioned, and handled with anxiety, de-dramatizing your approach can lead to clearer communication and genuine support. It’s also a first step to ending the feeling that you are alone. There’s not only a world of other trans youth and their loved ones out there worth meeting and learning from, there’s a rich and diverse lineage of trans people who met similar challenges generations ago.

If you’re looking for trustworthy places to learn more, I recently edited a book that brings together researchers and experts from an array of professions and specialties, including many trans people themselves. The Conversation on Gender Diversity is a portable, accessible collection that groups introductory reading around different topics, including trans youth. Second, if you’d like to meet some of the remarkable young people who have faced similar struggles over the past one hundred years, check out “All the Only Ones,” a three-part series from NPR. In this podcast I join a journalist to trace some of the remarkable histories of trans youth over the past century and connect directly to young people today.

Picture of Jules Gill-Peterson
Jules Gill-Peterson

Jules Gill-Peterson is an historian, writer, and trans advocate. She is the author of the award-winning book Histories of the Transgender Child (2018) and A Short History of Trans Misogyny, coming in January 2024. Jules has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the American Council of Learned Societies, and was honored with the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award from the University of Pittsburgh in 2020. She teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

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