This Holiday Season, Let Trans Kids Be Kids

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An older person's hands place a Christmas gift into a child's hands.
At a time of unprecedented anti-trans legislation, it's important that adults make trans and gender-nonconforming young people feel loved during the holidays, writes therapist Veronica Esposito. (Any Lane/Pexels)

Every young person deserves a normal childhood filled with school, extracurriculars, birthday celebrations and, of course, wonderful winter holidays. These early experiences are crucial parts of a healthy developmental path: Kids who don’t get them are at elevated risk for a host of lifelong mental health challenges, including difficulties managing relationships and a diminished ability to take care of oneself, find love or even hold a job.

Unfortunately, this December, transgender children across the country are going to have very abnormal holiday experiences. These kids are attempting to celebrate the holidays in the face of an unprecedented campaign of state-sponsored hatred against them, including hundreds of bills specifically targeting trans kids, and crackpot misinformation purveyed by influencers with extremely broad reaches. And inevitably, around dinner tables and during gift exchanges, some of these children will find themselves at the center of debates about their right to exist.

I well know the damage this does to children. I was once a trans kid, feeling the weight of a shameful secret that I held for my whole family, hyper-aware of anything that might reference the thing that we all daren’t speak of. And in my work providing peer support and mental health therapy to trans people, I’ve spoken with innumerable minors who tell me what it’s like to feel that they’re responsible for the feelings of all the adults around them. As a result, these children have elevated rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidality — things that are incredibly difficult to change if the adults responsible for these kids don’t step up.

Laura Anderson, a licensed child and family psychologist who has worked for years in trans healthcare, shared how complicated the holidays can be for everyone. She’s helped untangle complicated questions about which family members a kid is out to, whether or not relatives will respect a child’s identity, what to do if a child starts to feel uncomfortable during a gathering, and how to best make kids feel respected and affirmed. Even something as simple as a gift can be challenging: “What do you do if grandma buys all the boys dump trucks?” Anderson asks. “Trans kids can feel either seen or not seen based on if they’re misgendered by gifts. I’ve also seen adults laugh at gifts that are gender-expansive — you can see that they are uncomfortable.”

Melissa Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells me about the guilt that her young trans clients internalize, coming to believe that they’re to blame for everything. “It’s really up to parents to say to them, you don’t have to take care of us, and it’s not your fault, you’re not responsible for this,” Brown says. “It’s about acknowledging that and dealing with it when it inevitably comes up.”

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It’s normal and OK for adults to feel uncomfortable and confused when a child in their life comes out as trans. Brown notes that grief is a common experience; supporting a trans child can place adults into challenging situations. “I’ve worked with parents who have had to give up long-term friends,” Brown explains. “It’s hard for them to be able to hold that grief and loss of a relationship.”

Adults are certainly allowed to feel daunted by the challenge of making space for their trans kid to have a normal, happy childhood. But while parents work through their own issues, it’s not appropriate for them to make their children feel responsible. This sends the message to kids that they’re the problem and their parents feel ashamed of who they are, or that they can’t count on their parents’ unconditional love and support. Holidays are a crucial time when parents need to show their trans kids that they are loved.

Anderson believes that adults can help by taking the burden off of children and placing it where it belongs. She recommends that parents and relatives have frank talks with each other about anti-trans misinformation, or about old-school gender norms that are no longer valid. It’s the responsibility of adults to deal with this on their own, and not place the burden on children just trying to enjoy their holidays.

Just as I’ve seen how harmful it can be when parents don’t show up for their trans kids, I’ve also seen how transformative it is when those children feel truly loved and supported by their caregivers. Moments like that are truly life-changing, and they create unique bonds among family. In the words of Anderson, “There’s a really distinct kind of closeness that can come with family, where you’re leaning into what kids need and communicating with their adults.”

This December, adults need to leave the politics at the door and really show up for the young people in their lives — after a long and difficult 2022, they deserve nothing less.

Veronica Esposito is a writer, transgender advocate and associate marriage and family therapist specializing in supporting transgender clients.