Everywhere I go at the moment, I talk to someone who is aware of a child or young person questioning their gender or identifying as transgender. It may be their own child, the child of a relative or friend, someone at the school where they teach or where their own child goes to school, or a child within their church youth group.
This is not just an ‘issue’ to be debated medically or theologically (although both are important). This is about children and young people, along with their friends and families, who are trying to navigate some very tricky feelings. This is made harder by a society where there are so many factors influencing both the feelings a child or young person may be experiencing and the way that they and those around them handle those feelings.
I’m sure that most of us are now very aware of the huge concerns and controversies surrounding gender dysphoria and gender identity in children. The incidence of children presenting with gender dysphoria has increased significantly over the past decade. Referrals to the NHS Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) have increased by over 1700% in the last eleven years.1 There are many suggestions as to why this large increase has occurred, but no one knows for sure – there are likely to be multiple contributing factors.2
In addition, there are serious questions being raised worldwide about the appropriateness of medical treatment in this group of children. In the UK an independent review has been commissioned by NHS England following concerns raised by whistleblowers and Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspections of the NHS Gender Identity Development Service at the Tavistock.3 There are concerns about a lack of proper assessment and the availability of therapy and support for mental health issues, along with huge questions about the safety and effectiveness of medical interventions.
Another current controversy is the government’s proposed ban of so called ‘conversion therapy’. Some are calling for a ban on anything other than complete acceptance or even celebration of whatever gender identity a person declares. There are many people, both religious and secular, who have huge concerns about the dangers of this proposed ban and, in particular, how it might impact on children and young people questioning their gender.4
With all of this in the background, for Christians, what the Bible says is crucial to our understanding and our approach to this topic. Our article ‘5 Things Every Christian Should Know About the Transgender Conversation’ and talk ‘A Christian Response to Transgender’ give a helpful overview of the biblical material.
What can parents do?
With so many children and young people struggling right now it is vital that we, as Christians, engage with this topic. However, as mentioned, this is not just an ‘issue’ to be debated or researched (as important as those things are). This is about people – in this article, specifically children and young people.
Parents (or those supporting parents) want to know what to say, what to do and how to help their child or young person. So that is what I seek to do here – to give some basic pointers on where to begin in looking to support and walk with your child as they navigate a very tricky time. I write this article not as someone who has had first-hand experience of gender identity questions among my own children but based on my experience as a paediatrician, having the privilege of walking alongside families over the past few years. Here are some thoughts and signposts to organisations and resources you may find helpful.
- Be prepared. I am aware that most people will be reading this article because they already have a child struggling with gender identity, however, it would of course be much better to be able to think carefully around the topic before finding yourself in a tricky situation. For so many this situation comes out of the blue, and feeling ignorant and unprepared fills us with panic! This talk is a useful starting point for parents.
- Don’t panic! Maybe your child left you a note or made a big announcement at the dinner table. Perhaps you were able to hide your panic and appear calm (or perhaps you weren’t). Your first reactions are important, but as parents we often don’t get things right, and if that is the case, we must apologise and try again. Or maybe your child hasn’t said anything directly to you at all, but you have discovered that the school are already using a different name and pronouns for your child, and you know you need to talk to them about it. Don’t panic. Try to start a conversation.
- Hopefully you have already been doing this, praying for your child every day as they grow up. If not, then today is a good day to start! God is sovereign and he loves your child more than you ever can – he knows exactly what is going on in their mind and heart and can work in them.
- There will likely be a million things you want to tell your child about but now is not the time. You need to listen – to really hear what they think, what they are feeling and how they understand what is going on for them right now. It is likely to be really hard for you to hear what they say about who they feel they are right now without arguing. You may worry that not commenting means they will think you agree with everything they say. Saying things like ‘I hear you’ communicates that you are truly listening but doesn’t imply agreement. Hear their pain, cry with them, pray with them if you can (and for them if not!).
- Keep perspective. A child declaring a trans identity may feel like the end of the world but a few things to keep in mind:
• Parenting is hard, none of us are experts and every child is different;
• As children grow and develop, their needs change and we constantly need to adapt;
• Struggles with identity and understanding ‘who I am’ have always been part of growing up (especially during puberty) and for some young people this can be a very difficult time;
• In the past, that feelings of gender dysphoria persist into adulthood in only a small number of those for whom these feelings start in childhood;5
• There has been a big rise in mental health problems particularly in young people.6 If you think your child or young person may be struggling with their mental health, it is important to seek support for that specifically.
- Reach out to others. You need to talk to people you can trust to support you. This may be family, friends, or your pastor. Be aware that this is a controversial topic that many have very strong feelings about – if the person you reach out to disagrees with a biblical perspective, consider whether you should reach out to someone else.
- Seek support from others in a similar situation. It’s important to know that you are not the only person going through this. Talking to others supporting young people who are experiencing gender confusion can be very helpful and there are organisations that can offer connection and help: Bayswater Support Group (secular), Genspect (Secular), True Freedom Trust (TFT) (Christian).
- Do your research. There are an increasing number of books and resources available to help you to understand the topic more. Both Christian and secular resources are important to understand the breadth of the topic. Helpful resources include:
• Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church and What the Bible Has to Say (David C Cook, 2021) (Christian).
• Helen Joyce, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality (Oneworld Publications 2021) (Secular).
• Andrew Bunt, People not Pronouns: Reflections on Transgender Experience (Grove Books, 2021) (Christian).
• Sam Alberry, What God Has to Say About Our Bodies: How the Gospel is Good News for Our Physical Selves (Crossway, 2021) (Christian).
• Gender: A Wider Lens Podcast (Secular).
- Understand the role of gender ideology in your child’s journey. Find out whether there has been any teaching at your child’s school about gender identity and, if there has, what material has been used. Has your child been accessing material on the internet? Evidence suggests that for many children it is not until they come across material around trans-identification that they question their own gender. A common story is one of anxiety and then many hours spent online before declaring a trans identity.7
- Consider what else may be going on for your child. Many children with gender dysphoria have traits which suggest they may be on the autistic spectrum,8 others are struggling with depression or anxiety.9 They may need some professional help, although this needs to be approached with some caution as there is currently a tendency for professionals to focus only on gender issues and not address other mental health concerns. Always seek to keep explorations and support broader than just gender.
- Avoid social transition. Your child is likely to request some form of social transition. This may be wanting to adopt a different name, dressing in a particular way or asking others to use their chosen pronouns. This can be a very tricky area to navigate at a time of great distress, especially if friends or professionals are already using your child’s chosen name/pronouns. However, it is very important to be aware that social transition is a powerful intervention that may cause gender dysphoria to persist and may not bring any benefits in the long term.10
- Consider whether gender stereotypes or expectations in your home or church may be contributing to your child’s distress. Help your child to understand the biological realities of being male or female and the implications of that without imposing unnecessary expectations.
These are pointers that only scratch the surface of an area that currently is causing much distress to so many young people and those who care about them. I hope that they may help you to begin to process and consider how you can help without feeling completely helpless and in a state of panic. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, but God will be with you as you walk with your young person and help them to navigate this difficult time.
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Psalm 46: 1
For Further Reading
‘Gender Identity and Trans Identification - for Parents’ – Christian Medical Fellowship/Living Out.
‘Who cares if I’m a boy or a girl?’, Lovewise.
‘Social Media and Gender Identity’, Lovewise.
‘Sex and Gender – is there a difference?’, Lovewise.
- In the financial year 2011-12 there were 210 referrals. In the year 2021-2022, there were at least 3585, though the actual figure may be higher as the way referrals are recorded was changed in July 2021. See ‘Number of referrals to GIDS’, Gender Identity Development Service. Accessed 30 September 2022.
- Research is needed into the increase but there certainly appears to be an element of social contagion at play. See, ‘Social Influence’, Stats for Gender, and ‘The Surge in Referral Rates of Girls to the Tavistock Continues to Rise’, Transgender Trend. Accessed 8 June 2022. The general increase in teenage mental health problems may also be a contributing factor.
- The independent review is known as the Cass Review. The Care Quality Commission’s concerns are noted here.
- Editor’s note: For the Living Out position on conversion therapy see our article ‘Does Living Out Support ‘Gay Cure’ or ‘Reparative’ Therapy?’ and other resources here.
- ‘Desistance’, Stats for Gender. Accessed 9 June 2022.
- ‘Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2021 - wave 2 follow up to the 2017 survey’, NHS Digital. Accessed 9 June 2022.
- ‘Social Influence’, Stats for Gender. Accessed 30 September 2022.
- ‘Autism’, Stats for Gender. Accessed 30 September 2022.
- ‘Mental Health’, Stats for Gender. Accessed 30 September 2022.
- As has been stated in the interim report of the Cass review into the NHS gender identity services or under-18s. ‘Interim Report’, The Cass Review. Accessed 9 June 2022