Love Alone is Not Enough

By, Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney

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As a parent, learning that your teen is, or may be, transgender, non-binary, gender-fluid or otherwise gender-expansive can be difficult to say the least! If your teen starts talking about their gender, or asking you to use a new name or pronoun for them, you may find yourself hoping that this is a phase and that life will soon be back to “normal.” Many parents feel that if they just ignore the topic of gender it will blow over as so many teenage issues do. Sometimes this is the case, but what if it isn’t? If it persists, you may feel a range of emotions (confused, afraid, angry…) as you try to understand what to do and how to help your child. These feelings are completely normal and to be expected. Most parents feel uncertain about how to be a good parent in a situation they have never even imagined they would be in.

The number of transgender teens who will try to take their own life is staggeringly high (40% in some studies). You may think that your teen will be able to avoid these risks if you simply don’t allow them to express their gender openly. Research shows us this is not true. In fact, when a teen is unable to express their gender authentically, there is a significant increase in the risks of everything scary—depression, suicide, self-harm, and substance abuse. Research has also shown that parental rejection or lack of parental support increases these risks significantly. Your support and affirmation of your teen’s gender is the single most important thing you can do to reduce their risk of self-harm. 

So how can you do this? The first thing to do is to learn everything you can about gender. There is a generational divide in how youth today understand gender. Until this point in time you may have seen gender as a straightforward matter of biology. Increasing your understanding of gender will serve you well in this journey with your child. Being able to share a common language will allow you to be able to bridge the gap and to communicate more effectively with one another.

Maintaining a loving connection with your teen is essential as they explore their gender—whether or not you fully agree with them. You may be hoping that your love will be what your teen needs to help them get through their struggles. Your love is crucial, but love alone is not enough. Transgender teens who report that they have very supportive parents are 93% less likely to attempt suicide. How you demonstrate love and support for your transgender, non-binary or other gender-expansive teen can make all the difference. 

The most effective ways you can support your teen are to:

  • Create a base of family love and acceptance
  • Support your teen’s gender journey
  • Enhance your teen’s self-esteem
  • Help your teen to maintain their physical health
  • Find professional support for your teen and your family
  • Strengthen your teen’s ability to withstand and recover from adversity

You are not alone. There are thousands of other parents grappling with these same issues every day. In fact, many parents of transgender and non-binary children and teens say that the process of learning about their child’s gender opened them up to new levels of intimacy with their child, greater self-understanding, and changed their whole way of viewing the world. 

There are people and resources available to help. You can do this!

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Stephanie Brill is a leading expert on a broad range of topics related to gender diversity. She is the author of landmark books including newly released The Transgender Teen (with Lisa Kenney) and The Transgender Child (with Rachel Pepper). She is the founder and Board Chair of Gender Spectrum (genderspectrum.org), an organization at the forefront of work related to children, youth, and gender. Her work has been featured on 20/20, The Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, All Things Considered, and The New York Times

Lisa Kenney is the Executive Director of Gender Spectrum. She’s a featured speaker at conferences and a consultant to organizations and corporations on the changing understanding of gender and the implications this has for parents and families, social institutions and corporations. She co-produced the film Creating Gender Inclusive Schools with Jonathan Skurnik and Joel Baum and provides workshops and other events for parents and caregivers on gender. The Transgender Teen, co-authored with Stephanie Brill, is Lisa’s first book.