Gender pronouns like she/her, his/him, and they/them are becoming the norm in everyday settings at the home and office — a small yet significant gesture for transgender and non-binary youth and allies alike. We can begin to see how gender is evolving in a 2021 census report that showed that one in 300 Canadians above the age of 15 identifies as transgender or non-binary. Another 2021 study by Pediatrics shared that 62 per cent of transgender and non-binary youth feel supported by their parents. Reports on gender further prove that we are leaning into a future that celebrates gender diversity and the communities that support them, especially parents.
To learn more about how parents can support transgender and non-binary youth, we spoke with Kathleen Miller (she/her), a Registered Clinical Counselor in British Columbia and a member of the Inkblot Therapy network of practitioners. Miller has over ten years of experience in the field and has worked extensively with transgender and non-binary youth and their families.
Our conversation with Miller will provide parents with insightful tools and tips so that they can unconditionally support their youth. We asked her about what it means to be transgender or non-binary, discussed gender dysphoria, looked at misconceptions that could be harmful to youth, and explored the mental health challenges youth face and ways parents can support them.
First, we will look at gender identity definitions and languages.
What does it mean to be transgender or non-binary?
Gender is about how someone defines their internal self, whether male or female or perhaps not prescribing to either. If your child identifies with their gender at birth, they are considered cisgender (or cis). If your child feels their gender is different from the one they were born with, they may identify as transgender or non-binary.
The American Psychological Association defines transgender as a broad term to describe individuals “whose gender identity, gender expression, or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” Miller further explains, “that a person feels an incongruence with the gender assigned at birth versus what they know of who they are inside.” To help understand this better, Miller said that “if they were assigned male at birth, they are transitioning to female; they would be a transgender female.” She says transgender folks “know inside they are female even though they know [at birth] they were assigned something different.”
As Miller explained, non-binary is a term used to describe folks who “don’t necessarily feel they fit on one end of the gender spectrum or the other” and “move in between and can be fluid.” Non-binary individuals don’t necessarily “subscribe to gender norms but [rather] how they feel about who they are and how they show up in the world.”
The Government of Canada’s new legislation ensures that gender-diverse populations can express their gender freely while protecting against “discrimination, hate propaganda and hate crimes.”
What is gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is a mental health challenge often experienced in transgender and non-binary youth. Miller describes it as “a feeling transgender or non-binary people may encounter when there’s incongruence between what they have been assigned as their gender [at birth] and what they know to be their gender.” Miller says gender dysphoria can be triggered when folks are “misgendered,” which can often occur when addressed with the incorrect pronoun. This interaction creates an “uncomfortable feeling and a lot of discomfort and pain [for] people who are transgender or non-binary.” Psychology Today also notes that these feelings may result in significant distress or impairment, which may cause youth to self-isolate, either by choice or social ostracization, an experience that may lead them to low self-esteem and the possibility of dropping out of school.
Gender-aligned language choices
When interacting with youth who are going through the process of finding their gender identity, Miller says to “listen to your youth and what they are telling you and offer unconditional love and support.” She says to be consciously aware of the language choices and “the pronouns that [your] youth aligns with.” Common pronouns include she/hers, he/him/his, they/them, and other intentional combinations like she/they or he/they.
She also explains that language is “a huge protective factor and reassures that youth know that they are seen, heard, and accepted.”
“As parents,” you are really trying to be intentional about correct pronouns with youth,” says Miller. “If you mess up and use the wrong pronoun, say: ‘sorry, let me correct myself.’ Your child can see that you are trying to protect them by doing so.” Miller also suggested parents use gender-neutral language. For example, Instead of saying “you guys,” use “folks.” Aligning with your child’s pronouns can make all the difference, even if you are confused or hurt; rather than challenging their identity, walk with them as they navigate their gender and work to understand what will help them to feel loved.
Understanding misconceptions that gender identity is a phase
Coming out and sharing new pronouns can be challenging for your youth, so suggesting that it’s a phase or a fad can be very harmful and stigmatizing. Miller urges parents to acknowledge that it’s neither of those things — and that we “need to be careful.” Miller says the surge of people coming out and expressing their gender identity is because they are “seeing others do it [and] feel safe to come out and show up authentically as they are.” Miller says, “parents need to know it’s not a phase, it’s a journey, and having the support of a parent is crucial.” If youth gets the sense that parent thinks it’s a phase, they won’t feel [they are] accepted. Parents may be looking for confirmation bias.” Miller offers the example that if “a transgender male one day wants to wear a skirt, it doesn’t have to change their identity,” questioning them invalidates them and makes them feel unaccepted.
How to support your transgender or non-binary child
Being a teenager is challenging for most people, but the added pressure and stigma faced by most transgender and non-binary teens make this challenge even more exhausting. Miller’s research shows that “transgender and non-binary youth are at much higher risk of having suicidal thoughts, struggling with anxiety and depression, and developing eating disorders.” In addition, individuals may fear bullying or wonder if peers will accept them. They may also seek a 2SLGBTQ+ group at school for additional support. Miller explains that these “uncertainties and vulnerabilities surface for showing up in the world as their authentic self.”
There is a particular curiosity and desire to understand someone’s gender without knowing how that individual defines gender on their terms.
Miller’s tips for supporting gender diverse individuals
- Show unconditional love and support
- Use proper pronouns – “If you’re not sure, just ask!”
- Be an advocate
- Check-in with youth to see how they are doing
- Offer counselling support focused on gender identity/dysphoria
- Connect with the school to ensure teachers and peers understand their pronouns and inquire about gender-neutral bathrooms
- Empower youth to lead the conversation on gender identity at school and in the community
Additional ways caregivers can support their transgender youth
- Create a safe space, i.e., speaking positively about gender and sexuality, so youth know that they can feel comfortable discussing their thoughts and experiences
- Ask your child or youth if there is anything they need from you to feel more comfortable talking about their experience, emphasizing that you want your youth to feel safe and supported.
- Acknowledge what you don’t know, and approach your youth with curiosity, “I want to understand your experience better. Can you tell me more about _____?”
- Make space to be present and listen so youth feel heard, seen, and supported.
“It’s not uncommon for parents to go through a little bit of a grieving process,” Miller shares, speaking about the challenges parents may face as they learn more about their child’s identity and how that might conflict with how they are accustomed to identifying their child. As parents work to support their youth, it can be important to seek their own support. “It can be validating and beneficial for parents to look at support groups, connect with clinicians who are educated around these areas, and connect with other parents at the same step in the journey.”
Recommendations and resources available for transgender or non-binary youth
We asked Miller what types of therapy for transgender youth she would recommend, and she said it’s often on a case-by-case basis. She further suggested a treatment plan focused on gender dysphoria to help folks cope and therapy for depression and anxiety, highlighting that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a great option. Miller said some youth just want “a space where they can openly talk about where they are [and therapists] can help validate what they are feeling.” In some cases, Miller would get consent to speak with a youth’s parent to help them cope at home. However, not all households are safe for youth, and parents aren’t always a supportive option. In that case, “to help reduce negative health outcomes, if the youth doesn’t feel comfortable with you talking to [their] parents, therapist [can] talk to youth to see who else they can lean on to help make their feelings more manageable.”