My son was only 6-years-old when I heard the horrifying statistic: Transgender people are currently the population with the highest risk of suicide. I looked at James, my beautiful boy, and I was scared. As a mother, what could I do? What resources could I find to keep my boy safe from self-harm?
There was no denying James was a boy in a "girl"’s body: he had been telling us since he was 2. It just took us a few more years for us to really believe it. Now he was 6, and nobody used the pronoun “she” anymore; strangers we met had no idea there was anything but a boy under those clothes. I wanted to do everything in my power to make James strong in his heart and happy with his boy self.
As the mother of a trans boy, I knew in my heart that I needed to do something to reduce the risk of self-harm before he hit puberty, when life is extra difficult both mentally and emotionally. I knew I would need to do much more than just the surface stuff, the haircuts and clothes. Here's some helpful steps I figured out along the way:
1. Search for the right therapist
I figured if he started therapy young, it would help him be comfortable talking about personal issues. Therapy could give him a vocabulary he might need to express or make a stand for himself.
We were fortunate to find a transgender FTM therapist and author, Reid Vanderburgh. We met with him a few times, and for long-term work he recommended we work with the therapists at the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC). With SMYRC we could use our state health insurance and would have access to more resources.
In James’s journey with mental healthcare, I always felt it was important he keep a positive attitude towards therapy. I allowed him to self-regulate: if he lost interest, we would stop for a while until he decided he should go back again.
2. Find other trans families for support
Another great thing Reid Vanderburgh did for us back then was to direct us to a small network of families who had transgender children around the same age. So the second thing we did was join a network of families with trans members.
The group was started by one mom who was, like me, concerned for the future mental strength of her 5-year-old FTM (female-to-male) trans child. This mother reached out to every resource and person she could find (including Reid Vanderburgh) and planted the seed. She planted this seed of an idea, put out her email as a contact, and families came from as far as 30 miles away to be a part of this group.
For about six years, anywhere from four to eight families would join in BBQs and holiday parties hosted by one of the families or summer picnics at various parks. The children all played together. We all wanted them to know they were not alone in this world, to know that they were just as “normal” as anybody else.
The added bonus was that the gatherings also gave the parents a chance to compare notes on hormone therapies, doctors, legal documentation for name and gender changes, school documentation issues and more.
3. Look for a trans role models or mentors
The third thing I did was find James a mentor. One thing I couldn’t help thinking about was that when he hit puberty, his mom would be the last person he would want to talk to about personal or sexual issues.
A friend of mine had been a "big brother" with Big Brother, Big Sister and I kept thinking how cool it would be if my boy (who was 8 at the time), could have a transgender FTM big brother. I asked the SMYRC therapist if there was any way to reach out to the community and find a pool of possible FTM applicants. She was very supportive and even contacted Big Brother, Big Sister for us.
They assigned us a Big Brother, Big Sister worker who screened the applicants, ran background checks and did the match. They found the perfect match and for the past six years a strong bond has developed. My son's “Big Brother” has become a significant support person in his life.
Now James is a young teen. He is a solid and joyous individual who works hard in school, has lots of friends, a beautiful girlfriend, and participates in numerous physical and artistic activities.
But the teen years have not all been this wonderful; we had a bad scare last winter. Not long after his 14th birthday James got extremely depressed, became suicidal in his thoughts, and even made attempts to harm himself. What saved him and pulled him through to the other side was a combination of everything we could access.
We immediately got him back into therapy at SMYRC. James’s “Big” made a point to spend more time with him, and I found ways to keep him busy with classes and activities he enjoyed. I know now there is no sure way to completely eliminate the risk of self-harm, but we can soften the fall and create support systems that can help bring us back standing stronger and taller than ever.
We can do this for ourselves and the ones we love; we just need to know that support is out there. If we look for it we will find it. The mom who started the Trans Family Network showed me that we all have the power to create the support and community we need if we just plant the seed.
Once we figure out what we need, we all have the power to get it, even if what we need is of our own creation.