When Kristina Olson learned that her friend’s 10-year-old child was transitioning from male to female, she immediately became interested in the possible psychological effects it might have. She is, after all, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, where she researches prosocial behavior, status and inequality, and more. But when Olson discovered there was very little data to be found on kids who’ve fully socially transitioned, she decided to conduct her own study to see what kinds of issues they might face.
It’s widely known that depression, anxiety, and suicide rates are extraordinarily high for the trans community as a whole, but attitudes about gender identity are beginning to shift. More parents of trans kids are now becoming educated about their children’s needs and are discovering that their child’s identity is not a choice or a disease, but an innate sense of who they are.
So what does that mean for the mental health of trans youth? To find out, Olson’s research focused on families who are supporting their child’s choice to live as a different gender, in order to see how that support might alter the rather grim stats relating to depression and suicide among trans people.
In the end, the study’s outcome — which was published in the March 2016 issue of Pediatrics — was vastly different from other research about the emotional health and well-being of trans people. In this case, the kids weren’t overly anxious or depressed — they were just … well, kids.
“They had exactly the national average for depression,” Olson told NPR. “They are no more or less depressed. They show a marginal, like, a tiny bit of an increase in anxiety, but nowhere near the rates that previous work has found.”
While this is undoubtedly wonderful news, it doesn’t come as that big of a surprise. Yes, it’s fantastic that we now have a study to let parents know, “Hey! You’re child wants you to accept them for who they are!” But I would guess that most of us already know this and believe in it pretty wholeheartedly.
Loving your kid for who they are is basically the essence of being a parent, no? It’s what all children, in all walks of life want and need: to feel accepted, loved and embraced by their families, first and foremost. They need it every bit as much as they need to be fed or clothed. It’s not a bonus perk — it’s a necessary piece of building emotionally healthy humans, rather than tearing them down for being who they are.
So of course having parental support in such a hugely important decision — like embracing a gender transition — would crave that same kind of support. But perhaps even more obvious, is how a parent reacting the opposite way might be completely devastating to a young child who is already grappling with who they are. Most trans people report knowing they were in the wrong body at very young ages — from the time they were two or three. So imagine a young child being cast out and rejected by their own family for simply being themselves. It’s heartbreaking and the implications are huge, but it happens all the time.
Having a foundation of unwavering support is such a hugely powerful and important piece of who a child is. Why would that be any different for a trans kid? And knowing those kids are likely to face some form of discrimination (no matter how accepting most people become in the coming years), it makes sense that trans youths probably need extra love and support from their families. A strong foundation can have lasting effects on a person’s life, no matter who that person is or what body they live in.
According to NPR, Olson plans to follow the kids involved in her study into adolescence and adulthood to find out more about their mental health as it relates to their families’ views on their gender identity. But while the research still has a long way to go in proving just how important parental support is for trans kids, I can’t imagine any study that would show it isn’t.
The body a child is born into can have emotional effects on the rest of their life, yes — but the family and the love they are born into does, too. The love and acceptance a parent gives can never be viewed as irrelevant. It has the power to change a child’s life, and it does all the time.More On