Reframe Podcast: Episode 30

How to Help Transgender Children Thrive

kids holding hands

Today, many transgender issues are gaining more attention, but this awareness has not yet resolved many of the complexities and challenges that so many of these individuals face. But in this episode, we’ll learn about new research is starting to help parents, families, and community members better understand how to help children who identity as being trans and gender non-conforming live emotionally healthier and happier lives.
Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Today, many transgender issues are gaining more attention, but this awareness has not yet resolved many of the complexities and challenges that so many of these individuals face. But in this episode, we’ll learn about new research is starting to help parents, families, and community members better understand how to help children who identity as being trans and gender non-conforming live emotionally healthier and happier lives.

(MUSIC FADE) 

As a mother, she was concerned. A little uncertain. But trying her best to be supportive. She was a lot like many parents who find themselves raising children who identify as trans or gender non-conforming.  

Here’s Katherine Kuvalanka, an EHS associate professor of family science and social work, and one of the leading researchers in this field.

Katherine Kuvalanka:

At the time, I think her trans kid was maybe 9 years old and she had looked online and found that there really wasn’t a lot of research really at all on families that were aiming to affirm their trans kid and was that a good thing to do? She felt in her hear that it was the right thing to do, to affirm her child’s gender identity, but she could not find any research to tell her that that was actually a good move for her to do.

James Loy:

So that’s when—back in 2008—she contacted COLAGE, a non-profit support group for LGBTQ parents and their children, which put her in contact with Kuvalanka.

This mother only wanted to know how to best help her child. And as issues surrounding trans and gender non-conforming children and their families continue to gain more attention, stories like this are becoming less uncommon.

Across the country, this issue is now being raised in schools and debated by policy makers on multiple levels. But this growing awareness has not yet broken down many of the cultural barriers and stigmas that still exit. Nor has it resolved many of the complexities and uncertainties that some families still face.

But according to new research, including a study by Kuvalanka, and her colleagues at Clark University and Northrop Grumman, a more optimistic story is starting to emerge, especially for those who want help these children thrive.

And the bottom line is this: If parents and families want to boost these children’s chances of living happier and emotionally healthier lives, then affirming and supporting their trans gender identities and expressions—sometimes by allowing children to socially transition—is essential. 

Katherine Kuvalanka:

The big takeaway from our study is that, basically, our thought is that our kids are doing pretty well. They are doing a lot better compared to previous studies of trans and gender non-conforming kids and we think that is because our families are accepting in general. Generally accepting of these kids and supportive and affirming as evidenced by most of them having social transitioned and the parents have assisted their children in allowing them to transition.

James Loy:

Leading up to her study, Kuvalanka conducted ongoing interviews with gender affirming parents across the country. At the time, their children were aged between 6 and 12 years old and most had already socially transitioned. That is, most were clearly “cross-gender identified” or “binary trans” and were living as their asserted gender.

But a few did not clearly express cross-gender identities. Some seemed to hold non-binary or gender-nonconforming gender identities, which meant, for example, that they might say that they were “part girl and part boy” or that they wished they were a boy, but stopped short of saying that they actually were a boy.

And it’s this detail that sets Kuvalanka’s research apart from one of the only other studies of this kind, which is being conducted by University of Washington psychologists who are following more than 70 families with binary trans children, all of whom have socially transitioned with the assistance of their affirming parents. 

Katherine Kuvalanka:

Our sample is more diverse in that we have both clearly cross-gender identified kids, but we also have kids whose gender identities we are not sure about in terms of their identities. And most of our average scores are in the normal . . . so called normal range. But when you look at the cross-gender identified kids, the kids who have socially transitioned, versus those other kids who we are not sure where they are going to end up, the well-being scores of the kids who have socially transitioned are better. They are significantly better.

James Loy:

This research is helping us understand that family support could play a vital role in avoiding or overcoming the elevated risks for depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation that have already plagued so many transgender youths.

It is showing that children who are supported and affirmed at a young age, especially those who are allowed to socially transition, appear to be thriving, and on some measures of well-being are, as Kuvalanka notes, “indistinguishable from normative samples.”

Overall, this is important news for parents and families questioning whether or not to affirm a socially transitioning child’s identity.

But there are more questions that still remain. 

Considering the attention this issue has recently received, it is understandable that some parents might be uncertain, confused, anxious, hesitant, or all of the above. 

After all, how young is too young? When is the right time to be affirming and supportive? Or, what if, in an honest attempt to be affirming, a parent fears incorrectly encouraging their child one way or another? And so on.

Of course, no two situations are the same. 

But, first of all, according to Kuvalanka, that support in and of itself, is never a wrong way to go. And it’s important to know that a child coming to realize that they are transgender usually stems from a long process that reveals itself over time. So there is a big difference between, for example, a child who was assigned male at birth and who plays dress up once or twice. And another who repeatedly insists that the parents have it wrong, that they actually are a girl. 

Katherine Kuvalanka:

So, first of all, one thing to know for these parents, this isn’t something that happens overnight. It is not like the kids says once, “I want to be a girl.” And then everything changes, you know. What happens is that it’s overtime. So they look for consistency, persistency overtime. So is the kid consistent, persistent, and insistent over time.

James Loy:

Secondly, affirmation is not the same as encouragement. And while there might be some nuanced overlap between these two concepts, there is also a discernable difference between actively pushing a child down one path or another and being fully present, genuinely listening to a child, and letting the child be the guide. 

And qualified counselors are also very careful to say that affirmation is not encouraging anything . . . one way or another.

Katherine Kuvalanka:

It is not encouraging anything. It is just supporting the kid wherever they are and not making them feel ashamed for however they want to express their gender. But the counselors, the therapists, would never say, “Yes, let’s do a social transition. Let’s change pronouns and names after a month.” That is not what happens. It’s over . . . it’s usually somewhat of a slow process.

James Loy:

This is especially true for younger children. For those younger than 8 or 9 years old, for them there’s time before the physical changes of puberty begin for parents to try and understand the extent of what’s happening. But parents of older children might be more pressed, and it can be a struggle if they are caught off guard.

Katherine Kuvalanka:

For many parents, some of them don’t actually get onboard . . . it wasn’t until some of the kids were threatening to harm themselves, because they were so . . .  people telling them for so long, “No, you are not a girl. You are actually a boy.” Or vice versa. And that can be really stressful on a kid overtime. And it wasn’t until they were threatening to hurt themselves or they were acting out, they were so angry and acting out. 

James Loy:

But even in these more extreme situations, what many parents generally find, once they do get onboard, does align with the new research – that affirmation and acceptance can lead to improved wellbeing.

And the positive transformations can be dramatic too. In a recent research paper, Kuvalanka notes how numerous mothers described “striking changes” in their children that went well beyond just the expression of gender alone. And it’s not just families either. There are reports of therapists, physicians, and teachers who have also witnessed similar changes.

Katherine Kuvalanka:

We have had kids who were so shy, so painfully shy, they couldn’t talk because they felt like they were hiding, they felt like they were pretending to be something they weren’t. And then as soon as they were allowed to be who they are, when everyone else just gets onboard, I can’t tell you how many times I hear that, in so many positive ways, the kid is finally allowed to be free. And then the parents know that they are doing the right thing. That’s your original question of how do they know it’s right? It’s once they see that transformation in the child’s demeanor, then they know in their hearts they are doing the right thing. And then it’s convincing everybody else that it’s right.

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