Parents of trans or gender diverse children can face many pressures. These include processing their own reactions and emotions, accessing specialist gender identity services, being on the long waiting list
, making sure their children are supported at school
and looking after relationships with other family members. It can also be hard to find reliable information and navigate the healthcare system to get timely mental health support. As a result, parents often feel they are alone.
Many parents and carers had mixed feelings about support they received on the NHS (for more on this see what they shared about the support from their GP
and the Gender Identity Development Service
). Parents and carers spoke about needing more specific support aimed at them. Of the sources of support that they did mention, the main ones were:
- Friends and family;
- The charity Mermaids; and
- Local and online support groups
Support can mean different things to different people, but most of the parents and carers we spoke to agreed that it was very important. Ali said the support from a parents group helped them feel ‘less isolated, I didn’t feel half as much at sea.’ For Mel, ‘just having that sharing space where people can talk was really good’. Ross praised the charity Mermaids: ‘They have got me through the darkest of times.’
The availability and timing of support
In our interviews, most parents we spoke to wished that more support was available, but the timing of the support was also important. It was also key that support could be accessed as and when families needed it, not just as a ‘one-off’. For example, a couple of parents and carers spoke about being offered counselling by their GP or through their work, but not taking it up at the time. However, they thought counselling could have been helpful at another point in time.
Some people we spoke to shared that they did not need support but they appreciated knowing it was there, if something changed for their family. Andrew talked about how he and his wife did not need additional support now. He said: ‘Well we’ve since learnt there are groups, Mermaids, Stonewall, there are a few agencies that we could’ve gotten help from if we wanted to. But we haven’t needed to, we’ve managed to keep everything going and sort everything out, the two of us, my wife and I.’
Many parents we talked to spoke about feeling alone and that the available support is very limited. Several parents felt there was no support at all for them. Oonagh said: ‘I dont think theres any support at the moment in the healthcare system, You would just have to make your own sort of support, seek it rather than it being available.’
The lack of support was described as a huge gap. As one mother put it, the lack of support for parents is ‘the biggest kind of holes.’ Ross shared: ‘its not a whole lot out there. Not that I found and I have searched.’ This left some, like Georgina, in a situation where ‘we don’t feel supported’.
Some felt that the gap in support for parents needed to be addressed in order to improve support for young trans and gender diverse people. As Adele said: ‘if you’re supporting the parents then the kids are, by definition, supported too.’
Friends and family
Many parents and carers we spoke to emphasised the support they got from their friends, partners and family. For example, Adele shared about her mum: ‘I spoke to my mum a lot about this, she was giving me a lot of support anyway and sort of helping bring up the kids and she was really on board with it. And just really supportive.’ For Richard, his partner and his mum were the most important sources of support; he emphasised ‘I can talk to my mum or my wife about it.’ It is important to note that parental support and acceptance are key to the wellbeing and mental health of young trans and gender diverse people. Denial and delaying of care causes harm.*
Mermaids is a charity devoted to helping trans and gender diverse children, young people and their families. The charity runs a helpline, offers online resources, arranges some local meet ups that bring families together, and runs online forums where families can connect with others in a similar situation. Most parents we talked to have engaged with Mermaids, either through online forums or via the phone helpline. Josie thought that being able to ask questions and talk to someone was very valuable for parents. She said: ‘I rang the helpline a few times and spoke to volunteers, and they were just, they were just brilliant.’
Some parents felt that Mermaids was the only source of support for them. For Jan, Mermaids was ‘the entire support that weve got.’
Mermaids was sometimes the first point of contact for parents.
For Lisa, the experience with Mermaids was mixed. She contacted Mermaids to ask for advice about how to manage a situation where her husband was not accepting (known as ‘affirming’) her child’s gender identity. Although she felt they were helpful in giving her links and signposting, she needed more ‘specific nurturing support.’
Face-to-face and online support groups
Those parents who had a local support group talked about the importance of being able to attend group meetings and events.
Not all the parents had access to support groups in their area. VM, who lived in a big city talked about how lucky she felt to have two support groups ‘around the corner’ from where she lived and how other parents travelled ‘for miles’ to come to her local support groups.
The groups were a place for parents to share experiences, get information and advice, make friends, and socialise. Support groups also offered an accepting environment free of judgment. For example, Mel explained ‘I think they [parents] find it useful to go somewhere where they’re not judged. They’re accepted and there’s someone there that understands what they’re going through. It’s really, really useful.’
Some parents were able to join a local support group specifically for parents of trans and gender diverse children, whilst other parents attended more general groups for parents of LGBT children and youth. D, who attended a group for parents of LGBT children, described how parents of trans children were in the minority. He said: ‘There’s still mainly parents of gay children predominantly in this group. I think they are getting more parents of trans children as time goes on.’
Some parents had mixed feelings about support groups. Kate described herself as ‘not necessarily the greatest group sharer’:
Local support groups often had online forums or other social media groups. For many parents, this was a useful source of support, especially if there weren’t any local support groups available in their area. There were other benefits of online support groups for some people too. Ross thought the speed of communication and ability to gather different pieces of information or advice in online groups was a good thing: ‘I would ask and within ten minutes, three or four people would reply, with different views… When youre getting four or five different situations from completely different people all over the UK you can glean little bits of information that are the same from all of them.’ However, not all parents liked taking part in groups online.
Many parents we spoke to were supportive of their child’s gender identity and their social transition
). Not everybody we spoke to felt the same though. Elijah, who did not affirm his child’s gender identity spoke about support for non-affirming parents. He said: ‘There’s a network. There’s a very active network out there of parents who don’t affirm and are very, very sceptical about the [Gender Identity Development Service] and current practices in the NHS.’
Some parents, like for example Jan, talked about the ways they tried to support other parents of trans and gender diverse children too.
* See for example:
Puckett, J. A., Matsuno, E., Dyar, C., Mustanski, B., & Newcomb, M. E. (2019). Mental health and resilience in transgender individuals: What type of support makes a difference? Journal of Family Psychology 33(8).
Simons, L., Schrager, S. M., Clark, L. F., Belzer, M., & Olson, J. (2013). Parental support and mental health among transgender adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(6).
Priest, M. (2019) Transgender Children and the Right to Transition: Medical Ethics When Parents Mean Well but Cause Harm, The American Journal of Bioethics, 19(2)