*Tips for Trans Teens*: 3 Ways to Build Mental & Emotional Strength

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. 


Photo courtesy of Flickr.

*Tips for Trans Teens*: Binding the Trans Male Chest

Puberty brings a growing self-consciousness about our bodies that can sometimes be a mentally difficult experience. Many young transgender males see changes in their body and feel the need to bind their chest to make it look flatter, more “masculine.”

I thought my son, James, would never need to worry about binding because he was taking hormone blockers. We were sure the breasts would never grow. The problem wasn’t that he grew breasts, but in his pre- and early-teens years he had a chunky build. Both he and his big brother had what they called moobs ("man boobs").

Since his brother had them too, he was a little less self-conscious than he might have been. But in our society, a society that gender scholar Judith Butler has termed heteronormative -- or, in other words, a society where heterosexual norms, including those about "correctly" masculine men and women -- people become hypersensitive to what is “normal” for each gender.

When he got to be about 12 years old, James started to lose weight. He worked hard to lose fat and build muscles, especially in his chest area. But even with the weight loss, muscle gain, and hormone blockers there was still some fatty tissue in the chest area. James was becoming more interested in girls by then, and increasingly self-conscious about his body.  He did some research and tried different tips -- such as doubling up his t-shirts -- which I'll share with you now.


Wearing two t-shirts is the first tip in The Hudson’s FTM Resource Guide on binding. This worked for James sometimes, but he would get hot easily, and in the summer two shirts was too much. He insisted we get him something to wear under his clothes, something made for transgender bodies.

In other words, his next step was to try a binder. A binder is a specially-made tight undergarment, sometimes referred to formally as a "compression shirt," that flattens th eupper body. He found a company in Taiwan called T-Kingdom.  We purchased the lower-end model tank top that cost around $46.

We went for the tank top style he wanted to hold his tummy fat in. But if all you need is the top / chest binder they cost between $30 and $36.

T-Kingdom's sizes run smaller than the average Western sizing, so I would recommend a size larger than you would usually purchase. We had to exchange the first one and it cost us an extra fee because of the international shipping.  James was a medium for most things, but the T-Kingdom products were tight, and it was hard to breathe, so he went with the large and they worked great until he grew out of them.


James’ biggest concern his binders was the stiffness of the fabric. He is very private about being a transgender male and felt the stiff fabric was too obvious. Nobody could tell just looking at him, everything was bound down pretty flat, but he was concerned that if someone patted his back or accidentally touched his chest they would notice he had something stiff under his clothes.

James also mentioned that the other reason it was better to get a larger size binder, he felt, was because if the binder was too tight the fat bunched up around his armpit, and he worried that it looked like he was wearing a bra.  Mentally he felt better and it helped his self-confidence, but he was still nervous that someone might touch him and ask what he was wearing.  While T-Kingdom makes a good quality product, James was frustrated that the company is international and it took weeks to receive the products.

Today, as a teenager, James is quite fit. He is still doing blockers, and he started testosterone last year so his body shape has changed, and he doesn’t need to bind his chest anymore. However, for transgender males who feel the need to bind, he said he would recommend TranZwear over T-Kingdom. Their products are less expensive. Binders run as low as $12 and are custom made for your individual body type.


In addition to these products, some sites, such as the Wikihow, have other practical advice to offer.  The Wikihow site has easy step-by-step directions and easy to understand explanations for binding. They also offer practical safety tips.

As a mother, I must emphasize my concerns with the health and safety of binding ones chest.  The Go Ask Alice site also has some good safety advice, as well as helpful tips and links.

I have yet to meet anyone -- whether transgender or cisgender (non-trans) -- who is completely happy with their body exactly the way it is. We all have something we wish we could change. We may not always like it, but we still have to live in it. So please, whatever way you might change or manipulate your body, please educate yourself, and be safe.


Photo courtesy of Aidan Jones / Flickr.