Stresses & Risks for Transgender Teens

What social stresses might transgender youth face?
legs-407196_1920With the recent mandate for schools to make bathrooms transgender-inclusive [1], and the revelations from Caitlyn Jenner [2], public discussions about people who are transgender have exponentially increased. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all parents of transgender teens are feeling better equipped to talk to their teens about what it means to be transgender or about the challenges that transgender youth can face. Parents make a clear and resounding difference. Transgender youth who have supportive parents do better emotionally – they have better mental health and are generally happier than their unsupported peers [3,4].

So first, just to make sure we’re all clear on what we’re talking about: Gender identity is one’s knowing of themselves as a boy or a girl; or both; or neither. For many people, their gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned on their birth certificate. For others, it is different. Perhaps their birth certificate says ‘girl’ but they feel inside they are a boy; or vice versa. Not everyone feels one or the other however. Some people are pangender or genderqueer and may feel that this binary definition of girl versus boy does not fit them and their identity. People who have a different gender identity than the sex on their birth certificate, some of whom may identify as transgender and some of whom may not, are together referred to as ‘gender minority.’

Second, about 1 in 33 American teens, which is roughly equivalent to one teen in each classroom, identifies as transgender [5]. So, if your child or another teen you know is gender minority, they are not the only one. Many people identify as transgender.

As a parent, it can be difficult to anticipate what challenges transgender youth might be faced with and how to support them through it. To help provide insight, we looked at data from several studies of transgender youth and identified common stresses. Here’s what we found:

  1. Peer harassment and bullying

When victims of bullying are asked why they think that they are targeted, the most common response is that they “didn’t fit in” [6]. As members of a minority group, transgender youth are likely to experience this feeling of not fitting in, and they are much more likely to be bullied, harassed, and sexually harassed than non-transgender youth [7,8]. In fact, 75% of transgender respondents in a national study of youth reported regular verbal abuse, 32% regularly experienced some form of physical harassment (being pushed, shoved), and 17% reported regular episodes of assault (being kicked, punched) [9]. These teens cited their gender nonconformity as the reason for the bullying [9]. In another national study, over 80% of transgender teens reported experiencing sexual harassment—the highest of any group [7].

Bullying can have negative, long-term effects for all youth, including gender minority teens. Gender minority teens who are bullied are more likely to skip school and abandon their educational goals [10-12].  Furthermore, when examining the connection between bullying and substance abuse among transgender youth, we found that bullying can be associated with higher rates of substance use [8].

  1. Substance Use

Social stress, as a result of bullying, is one contributing factor to substance use among transgender teens. In other words, transgender teens who experience peer harassment may use substances as a coping mechanism. Perhaps understandably, gender minority teens use cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and other substances at higher rates than their non-transgender counterparts [8,13]. When approximately 5,500 teens from across the United States were surveyed, 49% of gender minority teens versus 37% of non-gender minority youth had consumed alcohol at least once in the past year [8].

Similar disparities are found for marijuana and other drug use, especially in terms of the recency of use: Among the transgender youth in the national survey, 15% had recently used marijuana, and 10% had used other drugs, compared to 9% and 6%, respectively, among non-gender minority youth [8].  Substance use during adolescence can have lasting negative impacts on social, physical, and mental wellness, as well as long-term development [8].

These are just two examples of the social stresses that transgender youth experience while growing up in a society that does not often present a welcoming environment for them. So, what can we as parents and other adults who care about teens do to support transgender youth? The biggest thing is to create positive home and community spaces for them [3,4]. This includes school. Transgender teens who attend trans-inclusive, supportive schools experience less bullying [14] and the social stresses that come with it.

Here are some more concrete suggestions if you want to make your local school gender-inclusive:

  • Confirm that your child is able to use the proper bathroom and locker room facilities.
  • Make sure that resources offered and that health, history, and English curricula taught are trans-inclusive as well.
  • If there isn’t an LGBTQ club on campus, such as a Gay-Straight-Alliance, ask your teen if they would like your help starting one.
  • Ask school administrators about their anti-bullying efforts and act to add stronger anti-bullying programs if they do not already exist.

For more information and resources, visit: TransYouth Family Allies


This article was written based on findings from:

Reisner SL, Greytak EA, Parsons JT, Ybarra ML. Gender minority social stress in adolescence: Disparities in adolescent bullying and substance use by gender identity. Journal of Sex Research. 2014;52(3):243-256.


[1] Lahamon CE, Gupta V. Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students. U.S. Department of Justice: Civil Rights Division; U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, May 13 2016. 2016.

[2] Bissinger B. Caitlyn Jenner: The Full Story. Vanity Fair July 2015:22.

[3] Simons L, Schrager SM, Clark LF, Belzer M, Olson J. Parental Support and Mental Health Among Transgender Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2013;53(6):791-793.

[4] Olson KR, Durwood L, DeMeules M, McLaughlin KA. Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities. Pediatrics. 2016;137(3).

[5] Lenhart A, Smith A, Anderson M. Teens, technology and romantic relationships. Pew Research Center. 2015.

[6] Hoover JH, Oliver RL, Thomson KA. Perceived Victimization by School Bullies: New Research and Future Direction. The Journal of Human Educational Development. 1993;32(2):76-84.

[7] Mitchell KJ, Ybarra ML, Korchmaros J. Sexual harassment among adolescents of different sexual orientations and gender identities. Child Abuse & Neglect. 2014;38(2):280-29.

[8] Reisner SL, Greytak EA, Parsons JT, Ybarra ML. Gender minority social stress in adolescence: Disparities in adolescent bullying and substance use by gender identity. Journal of Sex Research. 2014;52(3):243-256.

[9] Kosciw JG, Greytak EA, Bartkiewicz MJ, Boesen MJ, Palmer NA. The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN;2012.

[10] Greytak EA, Kosciw JG, Diaz EM. Harsh realities: The experience of transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN;2009.

[11] Grossman AH, D’Augelli AR. Transgender youth: invisible and vulnerable. Journal of Homosexuality. 2006;51(1):111-128.

[12] McGuire JK, Anderson CR, Toomey RB, Russell ST. School climate for transgender youth: A mixed method investigation of student experiences and school responses. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 2010; 39:1175-1188.

[13] Garofalo R, Deleon J, Osmer E, Doll M, Harper GW. Overlooked, misunderstood and at-risk: exploring the lives and HIV risk of ethnic minority male-to-female transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2006 Mar;38(3):230-6.

[14] Greytak EA, Kosciw JG, Boesen MJ. Putting the “T” in “resource”: The benefits of LGBT-related school resources for transgender youth. Journal of LGBT Youth. 2013;10:45-63.