Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals and their families have a plethora of needs that extend beyond what is typically offered by cis, heteronormative society. Being trans means learning to re-navigate everything you’ve ever known about the world in a way that validates and celebrates your gender identity. For loved-ones and service providers, the transition process can seem daunting and raise more questions than answers. Even for folx who don’t decide to physically or visibly transition, love and appropriate support are essential to feeling known and seen in ways that validate their gender identity.
Feeling at odds with your assigned sex and gender identity can be a very frustrating thing, especially for young people who do not have the vocabulary to express these feelings of dysphoria. On top of this, there is a common belief that young girls who act rowdy, less effeminate and more boyish are simply “tomboys” or “going through a phase,” and while this could be perfectly true for some, other children’s feelings of dysphoria are dismissed and assumed to be temporary and irrelevant. The same can be true of children who are assigned male at birth, and exhibit stereotypically feminine behaviors or interests in “girl” stuff.
Unfortunately, adults misreading this type of behavior can have very strong implications for a child who is in fact experiencing dysphoria; being forced to live with an identity that does not align with how they feel is incredibly detrimental. While there is no way to make a child talk about these feelings (and they shouldn’t be forced—the best thing you can do is be open to listening), some useful education may help to better identify when they are struggling and in need of support.
Gender dysphoria in young people could be noticed in the following ways:
- Asking to go by a nickname that is more or less feminine than their given name, or a different name entirely (depending if they were assigned “male” or “female” at birth)
- For transmasculine kids, a desire to wear clothes that are more androgynous, baggy, concealing, or otherwise gender non-conforming to hide secondary sex characteristics that may be developing due to puberty. Transfeminine youth may express an interest in typically feminine attire, such as dresses, high heels, or makeup
- Disinterest in gendered events or even active refusal to participate in them (I.e. sex segregated sports, gym classes, gendered birthday parties/sleepovers/etc)
- Becoming upset by gendered terms/names directed at them (I.e. girly, lady, young woman/man, prince[ss], pretty, handsome, etc)
- Talking less around groups of people, potentially self-conscious about how their voice sounds
- Panic/fear/sadness about erections or first menstruation cycle, continued displeasure (NOT exclusively from pain) as it becomes regular (other changes from puberty may be upsetting as well)
- Instances of nonsuicidal self-injury or other harm to themselves (cutting, not eating, isolating themselves from others)
- Acting out socially; confrontational, argumentative behavior could be coming from the frustration of dysphoria and social backlash. It is very easy to get frustrated, but instead of antagonizing them by responding irritably, ask what they are upset about and if there is anything you can do to help.
These are all very common behaviors that transgender youth may show, but it is important to always check in with that child/adolescent before assuming anything about their identity. Ideally, these check-ins should be framed with open ended questioning and pausing to listen to the child.
For example, a question like this could be alarming, scary, or anxiety-inducing for a young transmasculine person:
“Do you want to be a boy? Why are you acting this way?”
Instead, try framing the question with less accusatory and binary language, and offer a chance for them to answer and either explain or dismiss the question.
“I noticed you didn’t want to change for gym class or participate today. If there’s anything that would make you more comfortable, you can let me know.”
While this may seem frustrating if you are trying to get information from them, please understand that it is far better in the long run to be supportive and patient rather than hounding a young person (or anyone) about their identity. Being a persistent “fixer” can come across as overwhelming and very scary to someone who is still trying to figure themselves out.
Everybody starts this journey with different levels of knowledge, comfort, and expectations, all of which will change as the journey progresses. Like eye color or dominant-handedness (are you a righty or a lefty?), identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming is a normal part of human variation and should be celebrated as such. It’s not a phase. It’s not a trend. It is what it is, and what it is is beautiful.
“I think being a teenager is a difficult enough journey in and of itself, but being transgender makes it that much harder.”Jazz Jennings