Transgender teen, Gavin Grimm, left, and Vanessa Ford, right, mother of a transgender child, join a protest outside White House in support of trans students on February 20, 2017 in Washington DC. Grimm is requesting to be allowed to use the boys' restroom at Gloucester High School. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear his case.

Here's how to support transgender youth, according to trans teens

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December 6, 2023
The Washington Post // Getty Images

Here's how to support transgender youth, according to trans teens

Picture your typical morning as a parent. You wake up and get your kids ready for school in the same way you do every other day for nine months out of the year. You make breakfast, maybe pack a lunch, and yell at least four times to make sure they brush their teeth, wash their face, and comb their hair before they leave.

As the kids exit the house and venture out into the world, you feel a familiar sense of dread come to rest on your heart—the feeling you get each time they leave your sight, a feeling that only goes away once they come back home. According to a survey of 2,000 parents conducted by OnePoll in 2018, respondents spent an average of 37 hours a week worrying about their child or children—and 59% lost sleep as a result.

Concerns about kids' mental health and bullying topped the list of primary parental worries in 2023, according to the Pew Research Center. But one population is particularly vulnerable to these challenges: transgender youth. By talking to trans teens and using resources from The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention and mental health, Stacker took a look at how parents and adults can best support trans children in their lives.

Supporting trans youth can be a matter of life and death

A 2023 study conducted by The Trevor Project surveyed the experience of 28,000 people who identify as LGBTQ between the ages of 13 and 24. The results expose the bleak reality of transgender and gender-nonconforming young people's mental health: Between 48% and 56% of trans and nonbinary youth considered suicide in the past year, rates that far surpass their cisgender counterparts.

The issues transgender youth face are myriad: high rates of online and in-person bullying; a spate of anti-trans bills making their way through state and local legislatures; inflammatory anti-trans rhetoric pushed by right-wing media; increased risk of physical and sexual violence from friends, family, and strangers; and a lack of access to mental and medical health care, coupled with high levels of anxiety and depression. The kind of obstacles that trans youth face appear overwhelming at minimum and insurmountable at the most extreme.

Embedded within The Trevor Project's study, however, is a shining silver lining. When those surveyed came from a home with love, support, and affirmation of their identities, they reported lower rates of attempting suicide. Unfortunately, creating a perfect support system seems easier said than done—the survey indicated that only 35% of respondents reported coming from a supportive home.

What a lack of support for transgender youth looks like, according to trans youth

Seventeen-year-old Felix Alaniz describes his experience as a transgender young person as feeling like "being put under a spotlight you can't turn off"—a spotlight that can be "deadly" due to the rampant transphobia around him.

For the last two years, Alaniz has acted as the Project Leader for Cap the Gaps, a nonprofit organization in Auburn, California, which focuses on addressing the lack of care and resources provided for young people, especially LGBTQ youth, within the mental health care system. While he may seem relatively young for such a role, his lived experience has certainly earned him his position.

At the age of 10, after surviving a fairly public suicide attempt, Alaniz was forced to come out to his school and family. Seven years after what Alaniz called "one of the most traumatic events of my life" in an interview with Stacker, he now dedicates his time to educating anyone who will listen on how to support trans youth, especially when it comes to how parents can support their children.

When Alaniz's friend K, a name he asked to use for privacy reasons, came out to his family at the age of 15, he received a mixed response from his parents: While his mother was supportive, his stepfather had the opposite reaction.

"He's never been able to accept it or wrap his brain around it, and no matter what we've tried, it doesn't work. Talking, therapy, yelling, and screaming," K told Stacker in an interview. "If it weren't for my mom and being able to rely on her, I'm sure things would be a lot harder. But to be honest, it's hard as f--- having one love you and one hate you."

K, who turned 18 earlier this year, continues to struggle to understand his stepfather's response. "It's so unfair to bring a child into this world, or take responsibility for a kid, and then abandon them just because you don't understand them anymore," he said.

Alaniz had a similar experience: While his mother was supportive from the get-go, his grandparents were not, which he said deeply affected his mental health day-to-day.

What supporting trans youth looks like, according to trans youth

Though Alaniz's mom has consistently been in his corner, that doesn't mean she hasn't had plenty to learn along the way. "I used to get called 'she' all the time after I first came out, because I had a long emo side cut," Alaniz said. "My mom used to think it was just as simple as cutting my hair. She didn't realize that it doesn't matter whether I'm completely bald or have hair like Rapunzel, because there are people who will not let trans people move in peace. It's just never that simple."

"Parents have a slight struggle I see with being understanding of the smaller things," he added.

The Trevor Project's recent survey backs up the notion that it's the little things that count. From taking the time to educate yourself about gender identity and transgender people, to making sure you use your child's chosen name and pronouns in the home, small steps and consistency seem to be the key.

The Trevor Project's 2022 research brief spotlights five frequently cited supportive actions that parents or caregivers of trans youth can take: being welcoming and kind to their friends or partner(s); talking with them respectfully about their gender identity; supporting their personal gender expression; using their name and pronouns correctly; and educating yourself about LGBTQ issues and people.

K is now living on his own, thanks to the assistance of his mother. "One thing I do know is that a lot of kids aren't so lucky. Having one parent on your side can be the difference between life and death for some of us," he said. "I'm really glad my mom took the time to like … try? To make it make sense to her. That meant so much."

Alaniz said he understands where parents are coming from when they ask questions about their trans kids' clothes or gender expression. "I know it can be hard, but you have to let your kid go through the phases. Let them experiment. Let them figure it out—even if it annoys you to have to switch gender pronouns or names every few months until it sticks," he said.

In the end, the most important thing for parents to remember when it comes to supporting trans kids is to love them.

"I knew my mom was trying, even when she got things wrong, because she loved me and she didn't give up," Alaniz said. "The rest takes time, but if you love your kid more than you love your own prejudices or lack of education, then you will all figure it out together. Love your trans kid. Support your trans kid. Fight for your trans kid. That's it."

For more mental and medical resources as well as information on how to support trans youth, please check out The Trevor Project's website. TTP also has a 24/7 crisis hotline that transgender youth and their families can call for support: 1-866-488-7386.

Editor's note: If you or someone you know are experiencing a mental health crisis or thoughts of suicide, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8 for professional help.

Story editing by Eliza Siegel. Additional editing by Jaimie Etkin. Copy editing by Tim Bruns.

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