This might be news you expected or it might be something completely out of the blue. You might feel like you have a solid grasp of what it means for your child to be transgender or maybe you’re someone who needs a little more guidance in this situation.
Personally, I came out as transgender when I was 20 years old, so going through that process as someone closer to adulthood was very different. And, while that was less than a decade ago, society was a very different place for transgender people. My family expressed a lot of concern about my decision at the time, and they didn’t have many resources they could turn to as we navigated the process together.
Things have gotten much better in the last few years, both in my personal life and in society as a whole. More people are coming to understand how complicated gender is and how important it is that transgender people be treated with dignity and respect.
Recent estimates suggest that as many as 150,000 U.S. teenagers identify as transgender (from ages 13 to 17 alone). With more young folks finding the resources they need to transition, I often wonder what it would have been like if I had been able to live in my true gender as a kid. What would I have needed as a child or a young adult to feel supported?
Even now, as someone nearing 30, I contemplate what my own family could have done that would have eased the process of transition for me. With that in mind, here are a few steps you can take when your child comes to you with questions or information about their gender identity.
Relax. Take a deep breath. You’re going to have plenty of time to work through the details and sift through all of the emotions you’re likely to experience. Remember that knowing that something is different about them and having to muster the courage to talk to you about it has likely been very hard on your child, and the fact that they’re coming to you with this means that you’ve both taken a big step on the path to a happier, healthier life.
Trust your child’s intuitions. Being transgender is very much a felt experience. I️ often struggle to find the right words to describe how I know I am the gender that I am; I kind of just know. Your child might be able to explain to you what’s going on with them but they might also not have the words. Trust their intuition and the needs they express. For instance, they may have specific language that they would like you to use. If your child was assigned male by the doctor when they were born but they feel like a girl, they may ask you to use she, her and hers as their pronouns and treat them just as you would any other girl. Do your best to respect their wishes and follow their lead.
Set up a safe space in your home where your child can explore their gender identity and their feelings about it. They may not always be safe to do so in the world, so it’s crucial that they know there is a refuge where they can retreat if the world starts to feel hard. Carve out a little safe haven where they can play and explore and be free without the judgment they might experience in the world outside.
Try to find other parents of trans kids, trans-affirming friends or even a mental health professional to share your feelings and fears. It’s perfectly normal to be confused or worried, but it’s important that you don’t make your child take on too many of your difficult feelings when they may already be struggling themselves. Check out a local Parents of Lesbian and Gay Children (PFLAG) chapter or find an LGBTQIA center near you. Having that outside support can keep you focused on what your child needs and help to soothe your anxieties without stressing your child out more.
Educate yourself on how to be a good advocate. As your child’s support system — and as their legal guardian — navigating everyday transphobia is something you’re going to have to do to keep your child safe. You may also have to stand up for your child if they're experiencing discrimination from a teacher, a parent, a health care provider or another adult they come into contact with regularly. Read up on the best ways to support your child and help them through these difficult situations.
Stay flexible. Childhood is a time when all of us explore our gender identities, regardless of whether we’re transgender or not. It’s possible your child may change their mind about certain things or they may not. Flex with them and allow them the space to let you know how they’re feeling and what they need.
Know that you’re probably going to make mistakes and that’s perfectly okay. Come at it with the intention of supporting your child not just staying in your comfort zone, and you’re sure to do just fine. If you use the wrong language for them or say something that doesn’t make them feel good, just apologize and work on correcting yourself in the future.