Raising a child is not an easy process. It requires a lot of dedication and sacrifice. Parenthood is filled with great expectations for one’s child, and often requires a lot of hard work and support. This is wonderfully captured in a quote by journalist Maria Shriver:
“Having kids — the responsibility of rearing good, kind, ethical, responsible human beings — is the biggest job anyone can embark on. As with any risk, you have to take a leap of faith and ask lots of wonderful people for their help and guidance. I thank God every day for giving me the opportunity to parent.”
While parenting can be one of the most rewarding parts of the human experience, it can also be a challenge. Many parents face obstacles such as economic concerns and emotional barriers while trying to do their best to raise happy, healthy future adults.
Estimates suggest that .7% of children age 13-17 identify as transgender or gender non-binary, many parents may also feel, and be, unprepared to parent a kid who identifies as transgender.
What Does it Mean to be Transgender?
Many people describe being trans (or transgender) as feeling (often extreme) dissatisfaction with the sex that they were assigned at birth. The phrase “sex assigned at birth” refers to the process of being automatically assigned a sex (male, female) that is represented by external genitalia when we are born. Many people see this as an either/or option (identified as a binary).
However, scientists believe that more than two sexes exist, challenging our ideals of the sexual (and gender) binary. There is still much to learn in this area to better understand all of our variance as beings and how that may or may not impact our identities as gendered beings.
As a therapist who works regularly with people who identify as transgender, I can tell you that many of my clients have reported that identifying as trans can be quite scary and painful.
Imagine the internal pain you might feel if you woke up everyday not feeling connected to, or at worst, disgusted by your own body. It would be very difficult to maneuver throughout life with any semblance of positivity, or to believe a better life was possible moving forward. And imagine what it might feel like if you didn’t believe you had any agency over your own body and no hope to make the changes necessary to feel better. These thoughts are common among folks who identify as trans.
Your Child Comes Out…What Next?
If your child has come to you and identified themself as trans, the best thing that you can do is to provide emotional support to your child. In that moment, the best thing that you can do is reassure your child that you love them and will continue to support them. As a tip, some folks don’t warmly receive the “no matter what” that’s very often attached to the end of that message. It implies that you will love them despite their identity. “I love you, and will do my best to support you” is simple and works beautifully!
By the time someone comes out as trans, they have likely already considered that they may be subjected to emotional rejection or worse. In fact, according to the Human Rights Campaign 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report, as many as 78% of not-out LGBTQ youth reported that they experience their families making negative comments about LGBTQ people. As one might imagine, this can make children incredibly fearful of rejection when they realize that they identify as part of the trans community.
Reassurance and unconditional acceptance is, in my experience, the single most helpful factor for an LGBTQ youth. The benefits of having an accepting family can not be overstated. A growing amount of research points to the positive impact of family acceptance. Even simply calling your child by their chosen name (as opposed to the one they were given at birth) can reduce suicidality in trans youth. Research states that around the world, as many as 50% of trans youth attempt suicide at some point in their lives.
Tips from a LGBTQ Therapist
Here are some points from an LGBTQ therapist you may wish to consider:
- I kindly suggest that you refrain from proclaiming that you will love your child “no matter what”. While well-intentioned, this often communicates the message that you love them in spite of their identity (suggesting that their identity if wrong or bad).
- Try not to refer to your child as “a transgender” or a “transgendered” person with an “ed” at the end (the term “transgender” is widely preferred).
- Avoid calling your child “confused,” demonic, or scold them for being “trendy.” It is likely that your child has already thought this of themselves, so sharing this will likely be harmful. Trans people and variant gender identities have existed for centuries despite depictions in mainstream media. Trans identity is not new, but we now have updated, and different, language to describe it.
- Avoid using therapy as a punishment or reparative tool. The role of therapy is to be supportive and healing. Sending a child to therapy to be “fixed” for their gender or sexual identity has been found to be harmful and ineffective by all major medical and mental health regulatory bodies, including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association
Taking the Next Steps Forward
Providing support can look different for every family and having a child come out as trans can change a lot in the dynamics of a family. Thankfully, there are many resources out there to provide encouragement and support.
As a parent, you can work with an LGBTQ-affirming therapist with experience in addressing gender issues in therapy. They may be able to guide and aid you in your own journey of supporting your child’s health and wellness. Additionally, you may want to consider individual or family therapy with your child as they learn to navigate what being trans means to them.
You may also look for support from local LGBTQ groups, many of which host workshops, presentations, and support groups for a wide range of issues, including parent-focused support. More schools than ever now offer support around these topics, and may also be appropriate places to seek out help.
Most importantly, your child coming out as trans may have a big impact on you as a parent. Many parents of LGBTQ folks experience a wide range of emotions in this process: from grief and confusion, to joy and acceptance. It’s often a journey for all involved.
Having your own space to explore and be honest can be tremendously helpful so that you’re able to support your child in their journey of truly becoming themselves.