Adam Briggle’s son loves sports. He’s good at them, too; the 13-year-old just mastered his double backflip in gymnastics and earned his second-degree black belt in taekwondo.
The boy is also trans and lives in Texas. To say the last few months have been stressful for the Briggle family would be an understatement.
When it comes to the wave of bills targeting transgender youth filed in more than 30 state legislatures this year, Texas might be the boldest in its proposals.
More than 120 bills in different parts of the country would directly affect trans youth by attempting to criminalize parents or doctors for providing gender-affirming medical care, as well as by banning trans children from competing in sports.
The proposed legislation goes against recommendation from the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association ― groups that recognize the significant mental health harms from such laws. (As a demographic, trans youth has suicide attempt rates as high as 40% ― though a recent Harvard Medical School study showed that laws that work to limit transgender discrimination result in a drastic decrease in suicidal thoughts and plans.)
Among the most talked-about legislation are bills that seek to ban transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams in public schools. Such measures have been enacted in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, and implemented in South Dakota by an executive order from Republican Gov. Kristi Noem.
In the Briggles’ home state of Texas, a similar bill drew criticism from more than 1,000 employers across the state and the NCAA, which threatened to cancel future sports championships in the state if it were enacted.
Some bills threaten to define gender-affirming treatment and medical care as child abuse. For instance, Texas’s SB1646, which gained initial passage from the state Senate, would make it a crime for parents to allow their transgender kids to get gender-affirming medical procedures.
“It’s hard not to talk about some of this with our son and our daughter, who’s 8,” Briggle said. “My wife, Amber, and I could go to jail and have our son taken away from us. This has caused a great deal of stress and anxiety [in our home].”
“As parents, we try to shield our children from the emotional burden of the situation but without dismissing its seriousness or invalidating their worries.”
They don’t just talk about the legislation at home, they take action.
“Our family organized a rally in front of the office of our state representative, who’s a co-sponsor of one of the child abuse bills,” Adam Briggle said. “We got 150 people to come out in support of trans rights. My daughter was on the front lines, standing up for her brother. My son made a sign that said, ‘My parents are NOT child abusers.’” Briggle’s daughter also wrote an email to their state representatives.
As parents, Briggle said he and his wife “try to shield our children from the emotional burden of the situation but without dismissing its seriousness or invalidating their worries.”
In these uncertain, worrying times for trans kids, that’s the right balance to strike, said Alexis Bleich, a social worker and the clinical director of Kip Therapy, a New York City therapy group specializing in gender, sexual and racial identities.
“You don’t want to try to hide what’s happening,” she told HuffPost. “You can make current events and politics a topic of discussion in age-appropriate ways while not letting your worries and fears for your child become their worries and fears.”
Once a trans child recognizes they have an ally and support system in their parents, there are other actionable steps parents can take to support and protect their children. Here’s what therapists and parents like Briggle say they’re doing right now.
Remind kids that they’re loved unconditionally and that you and many others are fighting for their rights.
For Briggle and his family, much of this last year has been spent reminding his son of a few core truths: First, that he is loved unconditionally by his family, friends and community; and second, that advocates and activists are doing all they can to fight for kids like him.
“We remind him that many allies are working hard to oppose these bills, and they’ve got your back, too,” the dad said.
Briggle also reminds his son that many marginalized people in American history have had to fight very hard for their basic rights ― “even the right to exist.”
“I try to look at this as an opportunity for us to gain both greater understanding of those struggles and draw inspiration from people in the past,” he said. “As I tell my son, we have to hope that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but we also have to realize that we have a responsibility to act.”
Identify and focus on things they do have control over.
One of the most effective ways to bolster mental health for kids when they feel as if so much is out of their control is to help them identify and focus on areas in their life where they do possess some power, Bleich said.
“In my practice, we look at micro, meso, and macro areas of control ― think about self, family and friends, and the larger community ― to help clients identify where they can have self-efficacy and agency,” the therapist said.
For example, a teen might choose to take a break from social media and the news so that their thoughts and feelings aren’t saturated by unnerving, alarming information. Or an elementary schooler who’s feeling alienated can ask their parent to arrange to spend some time with friends, family or groups that make them feel safe and supported, Bleich said.
Bleich also recommends taking a Fred Rogers “look for the helpers” approach to helping a trans child feel supported.
“We can look at the many parents and legislators and public figures who are speaking out against these laws, raising money to fight these laws in legislatures and in the courts,” she said. “The ACLU in particular is doing amazing work on this, and watching some videos about the cases and people the organization is championing can help provide some concrete examples of what helpers are doing.”
Remind your kids that this is less about them and more about politics.
Right now, it’s important for your trans child or teen to know that there’s nothing dangerous or wrong about being trans ― and that this current legislative battle is less about them and more about ongoing cultural wars, said Jesse Kahn, the director and a sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.
“Hearing about all of the different ways trans people are under attack can naturally make them feel shame or fear,” Kahn said. “You can approach this by helping them understand that the anti-trans legislation is not based in facts about trans people, but rather it’s being used as part of a tool in a political struggle for power.”
If kids ask, “Why is this anyone’s business?” Kahn recommends saying, “Of course it’s not their business.” Then ask kids to consider another question: What is someone gaining out of making this their business?
“This takes the burden and shame off of trans youth and places it back where it should be, onto those pushing the anti-trans legislation,” he said.
Explain the push for this kind of legislation in age-appropriate ways.
For younger kids, Bleich recommends explaining the push for these anti-LGBTQ bills in the simplest way possible. She recommends something like:
“When people are faced with something that they don’t understand, they can become scared and angry. Sometimes this is because not understanding something or noticing that things around you are changing a lot can make people feel small and powerless. And that feeling can make them want to lash out at other people or at what is making them feel this way. It’s not fair and it’s not nice. What we can focus on as a family is how we will keep you safe and how we can join the work of keeping other kids safe too.”
Older kids may already sense that some of these laws are being pushed forward because they give politicians an edge with certain groups. That adds an extra level of difficulty to these already challenging conversations, said Jessica, mother of a 16-year-old trans child in Colorado who chose to use her first name only for privacy.
“What’s especially hurtful to my child is that they understand that most of the lawmakers pushing these laws don’t really care about these issues that much and that they are using trans kids as a political tool.”
“It’s really devastating to our whole family to think that the most vulnerable kids in our country are being used as a political cudgel, and these legislators don’t care,” the mom said.
To counter that hostility, Jessica said she tries to give the teen lots of space and support. She also reminds them that no matter what laws are passed, she and her husband’s priority is getting affirming appropriate health care for the teen.
“I let my child know that mom and dad will make sure that happens and that they never have to worry about having to figure it out on their own,” she said.
Give your kid a chance to just be a kid, too.
It’s important to keep a close eye on your child’s moods and habits ― and even consider a mental health day off from school if they need one ― and it’s equally important to maintain as much normality as possible, Briggle said.
“I want to allow space for my son to process but avoid him spiraling into doom and depression,” he said.
To that end, the family has tried to lean into doing things they know the 13-year-old loves.
“There’s been lots of tacos and ice cream,” he said. “Whatever you do for family time, be more intentional about creating those fun spaces where our kids can just be kids.
Talk to them even when you’re not sure they’re listening.
April, a mom of an 11-year-old son who’s trans, lives in Texas. Right now, her son is afraid that he’s not going to be able to go on testosterone at 16 like he had planned. The family has also been saving for top surgery.
“Dysphoria is such a big hurdle for us,” said April, who asked to use only her first name to protect her family’s privacy. “We have to compromise on showers because some days he just can’t manage to look at himself. I allow him to wear oversized clothing that helps hide his body.”
She’s made a point to check in with him even more than usual to see how he’s handling hearing about these new proposals. The mom admits she doesn’t have all the answers all the time, but she tries to find them. She casually checks in with her son even when she’s not sure if it’s making a dent.
“Until recently I thought he believed we were just talking, then he came to me and said thank you, just out of the blue. When I asked what for, he told me for making sure he’s OK and for caring about his emotions,” she said.
“I may not have all the answers or do everything right, but I knew that day that I was at least on the right track,” she added.
Remind them that the majority of Americans oppose anti-transgender laws.
Emphasize to your kids that Americans are coming around to trans rights: Two-thirds of Americans are against this current wave of legislation restricting trans rights, according to a new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll. That opposition includes majorities of every political ideology, from liberal to conservative, and every age group.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 7 in 10 voters support the Equality Act, which would explicitly extend the nondiscrimination protections enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the LGBTQ community, ensuring that people are legally protected from being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“As a parent, you need to shift attention away from the few bullies and toward the bigger picture,” Briggle said.
As the dad sees it, the support for transgender rights grows as more and more people get to know someone who is transgender.
“Support is strongest among younger generations,” he said. “Remind your kids that these bills are the dying gasps of an old, exclusionary world order.”