Some more UK commentators, and even the Royal College of General Practitioners, have recommended a ‘watchful waiting’ approach for trans children.
I’ve written previously that this UK guidance is out of synch with the medical recommendations in the US, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, Australia. How it is out of synch with experts in other countries who consider watchful waiting, which they more accurately describe as ‘delayed transition’, to be harmful to trans kids.
Here I want to share my own experience, and the experience of other parents, on how watchful waiting plays out in practice. For me watchful waiting is a misleading term – it sounds very benign and sensible. While the term used to describe this elsewhere, ‘delayed transition’, is a more accurate description, the reality for those living through it is that ‘prolonged rejection’ is a better description of what ‘watchful waiting’ means in practice.
From as soon as my child could properly speak, they asserted ‘I am a girl’. For some initial time, in total ignorance about gender diversity, I opted for active rejection: ‘No, you are not a girl you are a boy’.
Months and months of daily (multiple times a day) active rejection followed. My child would insist their gender several times a day. Active rejection was not leading to any change in my child’s insistence (just an increase in my child’s distress and depression). I researched and came across the UK guidance for ‘watchful waiting’, whereby they recommend a supposedly neutral approach where a child is not actively rejected (ie stopping saying ‘no you are not a girl’) but without any active affirmation (without saying, ‘ok we will call you a girl’).
We really tried that watchful waiting approach with our child. This is how it played out in practice with an insistent, consistent, persistent and increasingly distressed trans child (and these are the children who we are talking about, who most obviously benefit from affirmation).
Every single day my child would cry and say ‘I’m a girl’. During watchful waiting we would tell them I loved them and we didn’t need to talk about gender – They were left thinking their mum and dad did not understand or did not care about this thing that was so important to them.
Every day they would cry themselves to sleep saying ‘But I’m a girl’. I would hug them and tell them I loved them, whilst ignoring the thing that was causing their distress. – They were left thinking that one part of them was broken – un-loveable – unacceptable. How shame inducing? How pathologizing?
Every day I would try to actively break down gender stereotypes, try to break down gender roles or restrictions around gender expression without supporting my child’s identity. This only made my child sadder as their mum was missing the point entirely. In one conversation that sticks in my mind:
Child: ‘But mummy I am a girl’
Me: ‘Boys and girls can do all the same things. Would you like a doll?’
Child: ‘I don’t like dolls, I am a girl…. can I have a spiderman’
In another one:
Child: ‘I’m a girl’
Me: (Desperately thinking about what my child might associate as typically ‘girl activities)… Would you like to try out ballet classes?’
Child: ‘I don’t like dancing’
Me: ‘What do you like?’
Child: ‘Climbing trees. Girls can like climbing trees’.
I was not listening to my child. I was rejecting her.
Every day they spent sad, rejected, and fixated on the topic of gender. They were losing out on the carefree fun childhood of their peers. Every day spent sad and depressed and rejected is a lost day of childhood. Every day spent feeling that who they are is unacceptable to their mum, is a day piling on shame, self-hate, low self-esteem.
I watched them get lower, get less happy, get less curious about the world, get less excited about life get sadder, get more isolated and alone. This is what I was watching. What was I waiting for? My child had told me in very consistent, persistent and insistent terms what she needed. She needed to be loved and accepted as a girl. It was the only thing that mattered to her and she felt deeply rejected, deeply broken, deeply unacceptable. Was I waiting for her mental health to crash? Was I waiting for her to snap out of it? Was I waiting for her to reach an arbitrary age? Was I waiting for her to turn 10?
What would waiting until age 8 or age 10 until I stopped passively rejecting her mean for my child? What would be the benefit to her, of keeping her in a state of continued rejection, depression and sadness until age 8 or 10 as the NHS advises?
What are the risks of waiting until age 8 or age 10 until I stop rejecting her?
What is at stake?
For me the biggest stake is her childhood, her happiness, her self-esteem, her self-worth, her curiosity, her interest, her learning, her education. I care about her happiness right here and now.
During our phase of watchful waiting, my child was on pause, she was stuck, she was unable to thrive.
As soon as we moved to affirmation, everything changed.
Affirmation was a much easier thing to do in practice.
‘I’m a girl’
And we said: ‘ok we will call you a girl’.
We switched pronouns. As far as our family life was concerned, that was a very quick and easy switch. We switched pronouns and our daughter thrived. She has never once cried herself to sleep since that day. She no longer wanted to talk about gender every time we were alone. She started to talk about animals, and space, and nature, and how things work. She started to explore. She started to have a childhood. She became lighter and carefree. A huge burden lifted from her shoulders (and noticeably shifted to ours as we sought to get the wider world to respect her identity).
The price of watchful waiting was very high for my family. The price was very high for my daughter.
Watchful waiting robbed my daughter of a period of her childhood. A period when she could have been happy and loved and accepted and carefree. When instead she was left feeling rejected and broken. For a child like mine, watchful waiting causes harm.
I am thankful that we had access to other sources of information (my next blog will be on the evidence base for affirmation versus watchful waiting).
I am thankful that the period of rejection was not so long, and that the damage to her self-esteem was not deep.
I am thankful that since the day we stopped rejecting her, the simple change of pronoun, she has flourished in every way.
She laughs, she can dream, she can learn, she can play. She is having a carefree happy childhood. This was literally not possible under prolonged rejection (ie watchful waiting).
Many other parents tell the same story. Of trying watchful waiting for months or years and watching their child sink.
People with no experience of living daily with trans kids need to start listening to the impact ‘watchful waiting’ has in practice. They need to start listening and understand that it is neither neutral, nor benign, nor easy. It is hard to passively reject your child daily. It is hard to watch them sink. It is an approach that fundamentally misunderstands insistent, consistent, persistent trans children. It is an approach that fundamentally undervalues the right of a trans child to a happy childhood.
Trans kids only get one childhood. They need to know they are loved as who they are. They need to know their parents and carers have their backs, will listen to them, will accept them, will stand up for them.
Stop rejecting trans kids. Passive rejection can hurt as much as active rejection. Quiet rejection, rejection through silence and omission can hurt as much as loud rejection.
Listen to your trans kids. Love your trans kids.