Social Affirmation and Transition

Gender creativity and trans identities may emerge at any age. Some children always live affirmed in their authentic gender, and do not feel that they ever transitioned from one gender to another. Other children and youth clearly feel that they are transitioning from living in one gender to living in another. Transitions can be gradual or sudden. Sometimes transition is about the child making significant changes in how they express themselves in the world. Other times it is about the people in their world transitioning to a place of understanding, acceptance, and affirmation of the gender the child has always known themselves to be. Ultimately, we hope all children and youth are able to live in their affirmed genders.

There are many ways that individuals express their gender to the world. These can include name, pronouns, clothing, accessories, hairstyle, room décor, toys, activities, and altering appearance through binding, packing, tucking, or padding. Expressing the authentic gender self in these ways can be very affirming. For some children and youth, social affirmation or transition may be all they need to feel comfortable in the world. Please visit our Social Transition pages for more information on coming out, name and identification changes, changing speech, hair removal, binding, packing, tucking, and padding.

Parents often wonder whether social transition is the right choice for their child. Here we address some common questions and concerns:

  • Are they too young? We now understand that children as young as 2 or 3 years old can know and express what their true gender is. So there is no particular age that children need to reach before they are ready to live in their authentic gender. The key is listening to what your child is telling you about their gender and how they want to express it in the world. If they are persistent, insistent, and consistent about their need to transition or be affirmed in their authentic gender, these are important signs to pay attention to.
  • Will they be safe? The balance of authenticity and safety comes up here. When parents ask this question, they are often recognizing that their child needs to transition in order to live as their authentic gender selves. Each family’s circumstances differ, and parents will need to assess how their child’s safety might be impacted if they were to socially transition. However, if your child is experiencing distress from not being able to socially transition, their safety may be at risk in terms of depression and suicide risk. This question has been addressed in The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals in this way: “If your child is suffering, any dangers that await them as a transgender person may be easier to face than the dangers associated with their current depression.”1(p.114)
  • What is the right process or timeline for transitioning? Each child’s process will be different. There may be name changes (more than once) and pronoun changes (more than once). There may be new hair styles, make-up, or clothes as your child explores their gender. They may ask for a packer or breast forms. They may want to make a lot of changes all at once, or explore little by little. What is important is to listen to what your child needs in order to feel affirmed in their gender, and to let them make their own timeline.
  • Once they transition, what if they want to transition back? When parents provide safe spaces for gender exploration, it allows children to understand, accept and express their authentic gender self. Social transition can be part of their exploration. If you hold a safe space for exploration, you can communicate to your child that they will be loved and supported in whatever their gender is and however they express it. Then, they can feel safe to move among different gender expressions until they find what is right for them. This might be a binary, a non-binary, or a genderfluid identity.
  • How will I know if I made the right decision? When children who are persistent, insistent, and consistent about their trans identities are supported in socially transitioning, their feelings of distress and anxiety typically improve noticeably. If a social transition was not in line with a child’s gender identity, a positive change in psychological wellbeing would not be expected2.

Research on social transition

Researchers have recently published results of a study with children who have socially transitioned before puberty3. This research is confirming what many children, youth, families, and care providers have told us. Children who are insistent, persistent, and consistent about their trans identity, and socially transition, are doing very well. They are generally doing as well as their non-trans peers – no more likely to be depressed or anxious.

This research on early social transition paints a different picture from the one painted of trans youth, who overall are at much greater risk for mental health issues and suicide attempts4. However, it is consistent with research that shows trans youth with strong family support have much better health outcomes than those with unsupportive families. At this time, there is no evidence that socially transitioning causes problems for young children. More research is underway to study longer term outcomes5.

Planning social transition

If you think your child might benefit from socially transitioning, here are some things to consider:

  • Has your child been persistent, insistent, and consistent about their need to transition or be affirmed in their authentic gender?
  • What would need to change so that your child could live fully in their authentic gender?
  • Are there any safety concerns that would need to be addressed?
  • Who else do you need on board to support your family (e.g. extended family, friends, school, counsellor)?

Some families proceed through social affirmation or transition fairly smoothly, without help from health care professionals. Other families seek out support from psychosocial health care providers with experience in this area, to help prepare and advocate for changes.

What’s next?

In the Medical Affirmation and Transition section you will find information on gender-affirming medical care that is available in BC.

Resources

Books

1 Brill, S. A., & Pepper, R. (2008). The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press.

Online

4 Impacts of Strong Parental Support for Trans Youth – TransPulse
5 How to raise happy, healthy transgender kids – Kristina R. Olson, Katie A. McLaughlin
Social Transition Options – Trans Care BC

Articles

2 Ehrensaft, D. (2014). Found in Transition: Our Littlest Transgender People. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 50(4), 571–592. http://doi.org/10.1080/00107530.2014.942591
3 Olson, K. R., Durwood, L., DeMeules, M., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2016). Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities. Pediatrics, peds.2015–3223. http://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2015-3223