We are very grateful to the mother who contacted us recently and agreed to write this account of parenting her trans-identified teenage daughter over a long period of time. She has to remain anonymous but wanted to tell her story in the hope it may be useful for other parents in a similar position.
An account of parenting a trans-identified child
My eldest daughter announced at the age of 13 that she was “trans” and “male”. She persisted with that identity until just before she was 18, when she decided she had made a mistake. She now considers herself female. I do not think my daughter’s experience is unusual, yet stories like hers are rarely heard. My daughter is typical in not wanting her personal information disclosed for fear of attracting criticism or even accusations of transphobia. I hope this description of our experience will be helpful to other parents, policymakers, those working in education, and anyone who is reflecting on how best to support gender-questioning children and young people.
My daughter’s early childhood and primary school years were unremarkable but the transfer to secondary school was difficult, and she quickly spiralled into social isolation, depression, anxiety and self-harm. We got excellent support from her school, who helped us access the CAMHS system, where an ASD diagnosis was made when my daughter was in Year 8. My daughter’s trans announcement came soon after this, following a new friendship with another girl who had come out as trans (a third girl in their social circle promptly followed suit).
My partner and I believed our daughter’s trans-identification was most likely a symptom of her deep unhappiness and social difficulties, and we were determined to give her the support and space to grow up without making irrevocable decisions she might subsequently regret. Although her school and CAMHS counsellor were supportive, there was an immediate assumption that we would agree to her social transition by using a new male name and pronouns (her head of year cheerfully informed me that lots of their pupils were doing this). We resisted this approach because we felt that an unquestioning affirmation of her newly claimed male gender risked pre-empting the outcome of any psychotherapeutic assessment as to why she might be feeling this way. The prospect of medical interventions upped the stakes on what could otherwise have been a benign exploration of personal identity.
Within CAMHS, as soon as gender was mentioned, we were offered a referral to the NHS GIDS (Gender Identity Development) clinic. Indeed, the focus suddenly seemed to shift exclusively to gender, as if this was the sole cause of my daughter’s previous problems rather than potentially a by-product of her ASD and other mental health issues. After a troubling phone conversation with a senior clinician at GIDS, which failed to alleviate these concerns, we made the difficult decision to decline the referral, even though this effectively left us with no support within the CAMHS system.
In the years that followed, my daughter attended a youth group at Gendered Intelligence – this was suggested by our CAMHS counsellor, who did not mention that GI is a lobby group with a very specific stance on youth gender dysphoria. She became increasingly fixated with her trans identity, changing her legal name at age 16 with the assistance of someone at GI (who also made a second referral to GIDS on her behalf without our knowledge).
As she matured and began to find her feet socially, we noticed her obsession with her male identity was waning and shortly before she turned 18, she told me that she no longer considered herself transgender.
In the year and a half since then, we have had several discussions about what led her to believe she was trans. She acknowledges the part played by her autism and says “trans” seemed like the obvious explanation for her social isolation and unhappiness about her body. The GI youth group offered her a social network with other struggling teens. The physical changes of adolescence were particularly challenging for her, and she was horrified by the sexual attention teenage girls are suddenly exposed to (from catcalling to comments about her appearance). The breast binders she wore for years were finally discarded when she rejected her trans identity. She now describes herself as lesbian and thinks that unease about her same-sex attraction was another factor in her gender confusion. Finally, she admits there was an element of social influence at play, both from her peers and online. Interestingly, she also says that subsequently discovering online accounts from detransitioners helped crystallise the doubts she was already having about her trans status.
For much of the time during the period when my daughter believed herself to be trans, we simply avoided the topic of gender. But occasionally I would ask her questions, such as how anyone could ever know what it would be to “feel like a man or woman”. We discussed the gender stereotypes that underpin the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria in children and talked about the risk of pathologizing gender non-conformity. She agreed with me that a trans person’s sex does not change even if they medically transition, and I encouraged her to think about the contexts where sex might arguably still be relevant (on medical records, in sport, in single-sex spaces designed to protect women?). She was always open to these ideas, although she did comment “at GI youth group they make it seem so simple and then you ask me all these difficult questions and I can’t explain it anymore”.
We will never know if accepting our initial referral to GIDS might have changed the outcome for our daughter. The second referral made by GI came through shortly after she had rejected her trans identity. Perhaps the GIDS clinicians would have correctly determined that her trans status was not permanent. One of the things that was emphasised during my phone consultation with GIDS was the importance of “listening to the child”. This is admirable, however, as my daughter reflected when she announced her change of heart, “I was so sure. And I was so wrong”.
I wish there had been more holistic support available for her within CAMHS that did not focus exclusively on gender to the detriment of her other mental health issues. In the absence of such support, I believe that taking her out of the CAMHS system and asking loving but probing questions helped carve a space for her to make the right decisions and to flourish into the well-balanced young woman she has become. Not all children have been so lucky.