According to Cape Town mom Laetitia*, her 17-year-old trans son Declan had been a carefree, fun-loving little girl pre-puberty. Assigned female at birth, he was a goofy, lizard-loving tomboy (which made sense at the time, with two brothers in the mix). Declan was happy.
That is, until puberty struck, triggering gender dysphoria that would become a catalyst for the teen's female-to-male transition.
Not wanting to see himself naked as soon as his breast buds developed, Declan started showering with a swimsuit on. At the time, Laetitia thought that her 'little girl' – being very childlike – did not want to admit that she was growing up. But, once his breasts had developed, Declan told Laetitia that he wanted to have them cut off one day. And while he's never said out loud that he wants to be a boy, he did tell his mother that he doesn't want to be a woman.
After wrestling with his sexuality – coming out as asexual, then lesbian, then bisexual – Declan eventually pegged his unsettling feelings on gender dysphoria. His struggle was less about who he was attracted to, and more about how he felt within himself.
"Just before he turned 15, he told me he needed to talk to me about something and then said, 'I think I'm trans'. Obviously, it was a shock to hear, but I kept my cool. I asked some questions and told him that I would support whatever he wanted to do. I just wanted him to be happy," Laetitia tells News24.
Find our transgender support resources here: Crossing the Divide
'You grieve the loss of the child that once was'
Now two years into Declan's transition, Laetitia admits that the journey – while incredibly difficult for transgender individuals – is tough on parents too, but for different reasons.
Declan's coming out coincided with puberty, which is a common trigger for gender dysphoria. With that, he started struggling with anxiety and depression and is also on the autism spectrum. Consequently, Laetitia has battled to disassociate Declan's behavioural change from the milestone of his coming out.
"You grieve the loss of the child that once was," she says. "Pre-puberty, I can only remember my child as a happy girl. But since puberty, I've had a sad, anxious boy. So where has that little girl gone?"
More than her child having been a girl then and a boy now, Laetitia explains that her biggest struggle lies in the fact that Declan was happy before puberty hit. "In my mind I've made an association, that the girl was happy, and the boy is sad."
Everyday events, like Facebook memories of your child pre-transition, or having to explain your child's name change and new identity to people you haven't seen in a while, can also be brutal for a parent of a trans child.
Coming to terms with Declan's name change was another challenge for Laetitia. After years of infertility, then finally falling pregnant with twins (a "pigeon pair"), she was understandably attached to the girl name she had initially chosen for Declan.
"That was one of the hardest things for me to deal with. It sounds so silly, but that name had meaning to me. And then he chose another name that I had no input in. It was incredibly difficult to get my head and heart around that and it took time to get used to calling him by that name after calling him something for 15 years. It was a big deal for me, but it's not anymore," she says.
'My biggest concern was, how do you know?'
Like any parent, Laetitia had her doubts that Declan's coming out as trans was legitimate. Not that she doubted his self-diagnosis, but that she considered that he might still be exploring his identity.
"It's a valid concern. It's fine if your child transitions socially at first – even though that in itself is not easy – but once you start transitioning medically, it's irreversible and it's a massive, massive decision."
Considering Declan's place on the autism spectrum, Laetitia was aware that kids with autism generally feel different, or that they don't fit in. "My biggest concern was, how much of his 'wanting to be someone else' was related to him being on the autism spectrum, and how much was true gender dysphoria. That was my biggest question… How do you know?"
Fortunate enough to be in a financial position that allowed her to do so, Laetitia decided to consult with as many professional experts as she could. "I had to know that I'd done everything in my power to allay any of my concerns or fears," she says.
'I would have helped him transition earlier'
Among other professionals, Laetitia consulted with psychiatrist Dr Simon Pickstone-Taylor, who specialises in neurodivergent children and teens. After a comprehensive consultative process, Pickstone-Taylor confirmed Declan's self-diagnosis. Laetitia's teen had gender dysphoria and was, indeed, transgender.
After consulting with a paediatric endocrinologist to ensure that he was in good enough health, Declan started his medical transition with hormone blockers to halt further development and stop his period. After six months he started on low-dose gel testosterone before moving on to a higher dosage (using injectable testosterone). It took about a year before Laetitia started noticing physical changes in her son, including voice deepening and hair growth.
Would she have encouraged Declan to transition earlier, had they known he was transgender? Laetitia says absolutely.
"Had I known he was transgender before he entered puberty, I 100% would have helped him transition earlier. However, Declan only said he was trans when he was 15, so I didn't have the option to do so, but I wish I had. The poor child has been through puberty twice, first as a female and now as a male."
'You're making life-long, life-altering decisions'
Fueled by fear, regret often haunts parents of transgender and nonbinary kids. Oftentimes they realise that they could have acted sooner, but didn't. They feel guilty for not paying close enough attention. Or they fear that they might have to pay a price later down the line for supporting their child in the moment.
Says Laetitia, this kind of trepidation is par for the course when it comes to parenting, not just parenting a trans kid. "You're making life-long, life-altering decisions for your child all the time. And you can't be sure that they're the right decisions because you cannot ever be sure of the outcome. Medical transitioning is one of those decisions, and its impact can be irreversible.
'I was worried I would lose him'
As with any boy going through puberty, Declan has seen an increase in aggression since upping his testosterone dosage. This comes in the form of aggressive outbursts and being quick to anger. But, says Laetitia, this feels somewhat normal and far less devastating than the anxiety and depression that Declan battles daily.
Declan's mental health is also the reason Laetitia and her husband are intent on fully supporting and affirming their son through this journey. Research shows that trans children and teens who are denied support and/or hormones are more at risk of suicide ideation and poor mental health than any other cohort. According to Forbes, "52% of all transgender and nonbinary young people in the US seriously contemplated killing themselves in 2020".
The risk of not supporting trans youth far outweighs the risk of supporting them in the way that they need.
Understandably, all Laetitia hopes is for her son to be happy and well adjusted, regardless of his gender. "When Declan first told me he was trans, I was initially worried that I would lose the person that he was. He was a kind, caring, loving and gentle person. And I worried for nothing, because he's still the same person inside. Declan is still kind and he's still caring and he's still loving and gentle. He's the same person, he's just got a different outside."
* The names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of mother and son.
Find our transgender support resources here: Crossing the Divide
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