Supporting a Child With Gender Dysphoria: Tips for Parents

Published on: 05 Jan 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
father putting his arm on son's back

Gender dysphoria support for parents can be difficult to find when you’re first starting your journey. Regardless of how overwhelmed you might feel right now, it’s worth taking the time and energy to get the help you need. The truth is, if your child needs it, knowing how to help a child with gender identity might be the most important thing you’ll ever do for them.

Gender dysphoria is the distress that can be caused when your biological sex (the assigned gender at birth) doesn’t match the gender you identify with. Children who experience gender dysphoria are more likely to deal with depression, anxiety, and self-harm than their cisgender peers might. They’re also more likely to have suicidal thoughts. All of these can be exasperated if they’re bullied about their gender or if they have other negative experiences as a result of their type of gender identity.

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Research shows that gender dysphoria might affect 3.2% of people assigned female and 4.6% of people who are assigned male at birth. Understanding more about gender dysphoria and how to help adolescents  with gender identity issues is crucial. If you’re looking for help, you’re in the right place. Keep reading for gender dysphoria support for parents who want to help their children with their gender identity and how an LGBTQIA+ therapist can help. 

Understanding gender dysphoria and mental health

Trying to learn how to help children with gender identity issues can seem daunting, but there are a few things to note. The first is understanding that gender dysphoria can cause mental health complications for children, including extreme pain, disconnect, and unsettled feelings about their place in the world. 

Sometimes children will act out. They might refuse to go to school, social events, or even play in sports or go to extracurricular activities they once enjoyed. It’s common for children with gender dysphoria to stop participating in activities or sports that require physical contact. They may also begin avoiding social settings and circumstances where their bodies would be exposed — think: pool parties or going to the beach.

Signs of gender dysphoria in children and teens

Children and teens who are experiencing gender dysphoria are likely to express or feel:

  • An extreme and intense desire to be a different sex than their assigned gender at birth
  • Angry about the gender binary (female vs. male) 
  • An intense and long term ongoing discomfort with biological sex
  • Difficulty getting through their day
  • Seeming emotionally disconnected from life 
  • Being unable or finding it difficult to communicate their needs and feelings
  • Feeling like there’s no purpose to life
  • Feeling like they’re different from others and can’t relate to anyone else
  • Developing unhealthy coping skills — for example, turning to alcohol or drugs

There are several ways you can actively help your child if they’re experiencing gender dysphoria. That help can be critical, too. Gender diverse children can have self-worth levels similar to their cisgender peers when they get the support they need and are able to find a place where they can affirm their gender.

“This can be a scary, unsure time. It’s vital to provide an opportunity for kids who are experiencing gender dysphoria to have a safe space to process their thoughts and feelings. It can be difficult for any adolescent to understand and embrace their unique identity. For those individuals who are also navigating gender diversity it can feel extra lonely and scary. Finding connection and guidance is crucial to maintaining mental wellness.

Talkspace Therapist Amy Cirbus PhD, LMHC, LPC

How Can I Help My Child with Gender Dysphoria?

As we’ve lightly touched on, the single best thing you can do to help your child on how to deal with gender dysphoria or how to help teenagers with gender identity is simply be there for them. Being supportive includes valuing who they are and loving them wholeheartedly. Talking openly with your child about what they’re experiencing and what they need from you is key. Understanding how you can help them will be instrumental.

If your child decides they’re ready to tell others about their gender identity, you can be there as a support system. By helping your child affirm their gender, you’re helping them discover how to come out and to be their authentic self.

Offer support

The simplest and most effective thing you can do to help your child with gender dysphoria is: love them, acknowledge them, and let them know you’re there for them. Oftentimes, children who struggle with gender dysphoria feel very alone. Knowing that their parents are there and want to help them can make all the difference in the world.

“Check in often, with yourself and with your child. Make sure you have someone to process and debrief with, so that your mental health is taken care of in order to be the best you can for your child. And check in with them. Invite conversation, ask questions. Make sure you take your understanding of their experience directly from them.”

Talkspace Therapist Amy Cirbus PhD, LMHC, LPC

Educate yourself

Educating yourself as a parent is an amazing way for you to help your child. Take the time to learn about the types of LGBTQIA+ mental health issues in teens. Make sure you dive into everything you can about gender dysphoria. The more you understand what your child’s going through, the more you’ll be able to connect with them. When your gender non conforming youth feels that they can relate to you, they’re more likely to be open and honest.   

Get them in gender-affirming therapy

Gender-affirming therapy focuses on helping children affirm their gender identity rather than trying to “fix” them. There are several core themes of gender-affirming therapy, including addressing: 

  • Trauma
  • Depression
  • Shame
  • Self-harm
  • Violence
  • Medical treatment
  • Sexuality
  • Stigma

Some of the work that’ll be done in therapy can include:

  • Affirming gender
  • Offering space for children and families to process and understand their experience
  • Giving support through legal services and healthcare providers

Therapy also creates a safe zone and allows for diversity to be something that’s accepted, encouraged, and respected.

Ask questions

Taking the time to ask your child questions about what they’re experiencing or feeling lets them know you’re willing (and want) to hear them. Communicating that you have an interest in them helps them understand that you truly and genuinely care. Your gender diverse child deserves and needs to feel safe, and engaging them in conversation is one way to do that.

Allow for (and encourage) exploration

Social exploration is one of the first ways young people or a child can begin exploring their gender identity. Gender expression might include your child trying new styles of clothing, hairstyles, names, and makeup that align with the gender spectrum they identify with. 

Social expression is known to help people who have gender dysphoria develop their sense of self. It’s a great way to encourage your child to accept their gender identity.  

Help them with a medical transition

Sometimes medical treatment can help children if that’s a route they are interested in exploring. Medical transition is a step that can be considered in an effort to help align gender and physical characteristics. Some medical treatments can include:

  • Hormone therapy: Hormones are given to force physical changes that’ll help align gender identity with sex parts.
  • Puberty blockers: If your child hasn’t decided on hormone therapy yet, puberty blockers can help by preventing the developmental changes that are common during puberty.
  • Gender confirmation surgery: Surgery can be completed to allow the physical body to completely align with the gender. Some people decide to only do certain types of surgery.

Advocate for your child

We all want to be a great advocate for our kids. Advocating for a child who’s struggling with gender dysphoria reassures them that you’re on their team. Speak up when you hear or see transphobic comments. Let your child know that you’re there for them and that you’ll always fight to protect them.

“The most important thing you can do for your child is to consistently send the message that you are with them, they are not alone in this experience. If a child knows they are unconditionally loved and supported, it provides the solid foundation needed to share fully, ask questions, and feel all of their feelings. It also builds trust. As they encounter various situations and different experiences, they’ll rely on you for guidance, just as they would rely on you with other social and developmental phases of their lives, and they need to trust you for this.”

Talkspace Therapist Amy Cirbus PhD, LMHC, LPC

If your child or teenager has recently come to you and discussed their gender dysphoria, it’s essential that you help them find the support they need as soon as possible. Your child might be experiencing extreme mental health distress that could quickly manifest into more. Gender dysphoria support for parents can be found through support groups, online, or from your doctor or therapist. 

Sources:

1. Garg G, Elshimy G, Marwaha R. Gender Dysphoria. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532313/. Published 2021. Accessed December 11, 2021.

2. Walter Pierre Bouman, Annelou LC de Vries & Guy T’Sjoen (2016) Gender Dysphoria and Gender Incongruence: An evolving inter-disciplinary field, International Review of Psychiatry, 28:1, 1-4, DOI: 10.3109/09540261.2016.1125740

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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