by Liam Lowery
If your teenage child has a differing gender identity, it’s likely that they experience some degree of gender and/or body dysphoria.
Dysphoria is a psychological state of feeling unease or generally feeling dissatisfaction. Dysphoria can relate to a person’s gender or to their body, but very often, gender and body dysphoria go hand in hand—if you aren’t comfortable with your assigned gender, you likely aren’t comfortable with the physical traits most often attributed to your assigned gender, too.
For instance, when, as a transmasculine pre-teen, I started to develop breast tissue, I felt that my chest was giant and unignorable. I felt like every person I met looked at my chest and knew how large it was, no matter how many layers of binding I used. For reference, I was barely an A-cup.
For TGNC (trans and gender nonconforming) kids and teens, body dysphoria isn’t about how you look– it’s about your internal perception of how you look, and, often, how this goes against the grain of your gender. This can result in feeling betrayed by and alienated from your body.
It’s an awful experience. But, as with most challenges your kid will overcome, meaningful parental support can go a long way in making the journey easier. Here is a list of the five most important things for you to remember as you parent your trans or gender nonconforming child who may be experiencing gender and/or body dysphoria:
1. Dysphoria is a real thing
When I was coming out as a transgender teenager, I struggled with body dysphoria. For me, it was mostly a feeling of not being at home in my body, and being cripplingly self-conscious about my appearance, especially the parts of my body that felt at odds with my gender identity.
Dysphoria is a recognized psychological condition, and it’s important to remember that as you work with your kid, you want to affirm that what they’re going through is real. Work together to decide what they need to move forward with treating their condition; this may include psychological counseling or pursuing physical changes. But first and foremost, acknowledge their experience;if you aren’t trans yourself, your child may feel unsafe talking to you for fear that you just won’t get it.
The most important thing to remember is that even when you don’t understand, listen and convey to your child that you believe them and know this is a real condition.
2. Dysphoria is not the same as garden-variety childhood/teenage insecurity
Although your gender non-conforming teenager may experience some insecurity simply as a result of being a teenager, generally gender and body dysphoria will revolve around sensitivity regarding things like socially gendered body characteristics—genitals, chests, etc.
For example, my body dysphoria was largely focused on the size of my chest. Even when I bound my chest, I thought it was super noticeable, and I would often feel too embarrassed to change in front of other people in the locker room. It made me miserable, but I lacked the vocabulary to explain it to my parents.
If you suspect your kid might be experiencing gender or body dysphoria, ask them questions and listen carefully to what they say. If you find that they fixate on gendered body characteristics or feel alienated from their bodies, talk to them about it, and do what you can to support them through tough moments.
It’s also always a good idea to reach out to your local LGBTQ parent’s organization or community center for resources, including recommended counselors.
3. Gender and body dysphoria don’t go away with new clothes, a different haircut, a surgery, a prescription for hormones, etc.
Gender and body dysphoria don’t only relate to actual physical appearance, but your kid’s dissatisfaction with their perceived gender or changes in their body. Dysphoria, most often, has as much or more to do with what’s going on internally than what’s going on externally. This is why the help of a counselor with experience in helping TGNC kids and teens can change far more than new clothes, a different haircut, a surgery, a prescription for hormones can alone.
That being said, these things can often help. If there is a physical change your kid wants to make, try to help them make it a reality. Things like breast forms or binders, different clothes, or a haircut or hair extensions aren’t a cure, but may help ease some of the symptoms of dysphoria for your child. This allows your kid to express some autonomy over their appearance, and provide an opportunity to connect with their body in a positive way.
Ask your kid about the things they want, and try to learn about their options. Mostly, though, making it clear to your kid that you’re a safe person to talk to about their very personal feelings about their body and their gender is what matters. Try not to bristle if they mention wanting things—like hormone or surgeries—that you aren’t ready to take on yet. Keep an open mind, listen, and support the things you can do for them immediately, like using their preferred name and pronouns, helping them find some new clothes or a new hairstyle.
4. In fact, body and gender dysphoria may never really “go away”
Even if your kid has a point-by-point plan for their gender transition, ticking off every item on the checklist won’t necessarily cure gender or body dysphoria. Day-to-day situational triggers, like being misgendered, or just plain old off-days can still happen, regardless of where your child is in their transition or their particular gender identity. The goal is to help manage your child’s dysphoria so that it does not negatively affect their life.
Introduce your kid to the idea that taking time to check in with themselves is part of what they have to do to be well, and make it clear that you understand gender and body dysphoria can be a process of ups and downs. Help your kid, if possible with a counselor, develop coping mechanisms for days when they are feeling negative or alienated from their body
5. You can always check in.
Even if you don’t know what to say, it’s a good practice to let your kid know that you understand that experiences of gender and body dysphoria can pop up when you least expect them, even years into a gender transition. Don’t wait until you feel like what you have to say is perfect, just say that you’re there for them.
Support is a constant practice, not a one-time solution. Let your kid know that you’re in it for the long haul and that you’re a safe person to talk to, and show them you’re invested in their mental health by continuing to check in.
Liam Lowery is a queer transgender man and law student, based in New York. His work focuses on transgender legal advocacy, and how race, class, ability and sexuality impact the transgender experience.
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