Gender Identity: When Separated Parents Can’t Agree How Best to Support Their Trans Child

Knowing how best to support a child who is struggling with their gender identity can pose challenges for any parent. When parents have separated and communication between them is strained, it can be even more challenging. They may have different levels of understanding or insight into how their child is feeling or contrasting views on how best to support them.

Every family – and every child – is different. This blog seeks to set out general advice about avenues to explore for parents in this situation, rather than seeking a “one size fits all” answer.

For a child or young person who has conveyed feelings to a parent / parents that the sex assigned to them at birth does not conform to their gender identity (or more specifically they identify as being trans, non-binary or gender fluid) they will need to feel reassured that they are loved by their parents unconditionally. So while a parent may in the initial stages of being told have a lot to process themselves, making their child feel held – irrespective of how they identify or of where their journey may take them – is essential.

The question of gender identity can be unfamiliar terrain to parents and children alike. Reading up on the language and experiences of others, as well as accessing support groups are both relatively immediate options and will provide insight more generally; however, understanding how your child feels, and what adjustments can be made to their lives to ease their discomfort or distress with their gender identity, may take longer to unravel, particularly as children approach puberty. It will depend on a child’s age, and where they are in their journey, for example – whether it is a question of fluidity or variance from their assigned gender, rather than gender dysphoria or incongruence (which are diagnosed by clinicians). [See the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (‘DSM-5’) diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria and gender incongruence such decisions, and it is for the child, their parents and the clinicians to agree upon].

Trans children or young adults may already have a clear idea of their preferred pronouns, what kind of clothes they want to wear and whether they would like to be known by a different name. Young adults with gender dysphoria may also want to pursue medical intervention.

Everyone with parental responsibility has a say in the name their child goes by or in what medical treatment they should receive from their birth (in fact the scope is wider, but these are the most relevant examples for this blog); however, once a child turns 16, these are decisions they can make to the exclusion of their parents.

In the intervening years it is more of a grey area, as parents’ parental responsibility “dwindles” and a child’s wishes and feelings take on greater importance. Children under 16 can be deemed to be “Gillick competent”, which means they can give consent as if they were an adult. It is decided on a case-by-case basis and will depend on the maturity and understanding of the child, as well as the matter in question – choosing what to wear and what name to be known as requires less understanding than for medical treatment, for example.

If separated parents of under 16s struggling with their gender identity cannot agree on the best way to support their child, might the answer lie with the courts?

• When it comes to the question of medical intervention for gender dysphoric children, the Court of Appeal has been clear: judges have no place in making such decisions, and it is for the child, their parents and the clinicians to agree upon.

The difficulty here for parents – and moreover children – is that the specialist services through which children can be assessed and medical services be accessed are hugely overburdened, with families having to wait months, if not years, for progress. [The specialist services to support trans children and young people are the subject of the Cass report, which is due to be published later this year (the interim report published in February 2022 can be found here)].

The situation can therefore prove even more challenging for separated parents who may find communication between them difficult, where the views of a neutral professional at an earlier stage could help unpick the deadlock they might find themselves in on the issue.

• When it comes to changing a child’s name by deed poll, courts may be more prepared to intervene. Courts have long been reluctant to change a child’s surname and only do so in limited circumstances. While forenames have just as much importance, if a child expresses clear views about wanting to change their name permanently, is committed to their gender identity and will suffer emotional harm if they are not permitted to change their name, then these factors might be persuasive for an order to change their name to be made.

We know that frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict between parents is harmful for children’s mental health. For children struggling with their gender identity, experiencing ongoing conflict between their parents – on top of the other emotions they are processing – is only going add to their burdens. So in this context, the best solution to resolve disagreements about supporting a trans child is unlikely to lie in taking matters to court.

The wait for courts and/or gender identity specialist services can be much longer than these children need, with their problems or worries (and not just those relating to gender) going unaddressed for months, if not years. Family therapy is much more likely to give shape to meaningful solutions for children; it is more holistic, providing the opportunity to address all aspects of a child’s mental health and for parents to have greater insight into how their child is feeling. It can also give rise to finding better ways of working between co-parents and reaching consensus to support their child. Family mediation, including child inclusive mediation, may also offer a constructive space to explore these issues.

At FLiP we know that there is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to dealing with such sensitive family issues. Our approach is to work closely with families to identify the best way forward for them, advising and signposting them to other professional and expert assistance, if required. Our goal is to help families find ways to safely navigate what can feel like troubled times.