Finding out that you have a transgender child or one who is exploring gender identity can be a jarring moment for most parents. It’s not news that parents are typically prepared to handle, even if they’re supportive when they receive word. There are a lot of do’s and don’ts to keep in mind if your child shares that they are transgender.
For starters, understand that you’re not alone. You may not know anyone else personally who’s gone through this situation, but that doesn’t mean that you have to navigate it solo. There are organizations and individuals out there that support parents of gender non-conforming children and teens.
Even if you feel uncomfortable with the news initially, remember that your role in your child’s life is more important now than ever. Try not to take this new information as a reason to give up or feel left out. Instead, see this as an opportunity to learn more about your child.
You cannot prevent or change your child’s gender identity. In fact, your child’s unconventional gender identity is not a problem that needs to be corrected, but instead is something you can work with your child to nourish and explore. Gender identity is not the result of something you did or didn’t go, but rather an expression of your child’s natural identity.
Patience is essential. It may take a while for your child to open up further after the initial discussion. There are many issues to consider, such as how your child wants to be presented in public, and some opinions will evolve over time.
Your support can make all the difference. Remember, it takes courage for people to admit their gender identity may not match up to their biological gender. Children who are transgender often face skepticism, questioning, misunderstanding and even hostility. As a parent, you lead the way in creating a safe, understanding environment. Stand up for your child, when needed. Also accept and support how your child expresses gender, such as through clothing, accessories, hairstyles and decorations in their rooms. Studies show that good family support significantly reduces mental health struggles in transgender kids.
The way you communicate also matters. When a child expresses that they are transgender or that they are exploring their gender identity, take it seriously. Find out if they prefer to be called by a gender-specific pronoun, such as he or she, or by something neutral like “they,” or by their first name when you’re talking to them or with others. Be sure to ask if there’s anything you can do to better help them. You might point out that there are two to four transgender kids in an average high school of 2,000 students, so they’re not alone.
Approaching friends and family about the change can be tricky, but let your child lead the way. Find out how they want to communicate the transition. Do they want to tell friends and family or have you initiate the discussion? Some possibilities for disclosing the transition include holding a meeting and telling everyone at once, sharing with family members individually or writing a letter or email to people. Keep in mind that 61 percent of respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) say that their family relationships improved after coming out as transgender. It doesn’t have to be a scary proposition to tell others in the family.
When you do talk to family and friends about having a child who is transgender, take a factual, positive approach. If you’re confident in how you present the situation, you’ll set the tone with the response. Explain that you support your child living life authentically because it will give them a happy, successful and bright future. If people respond negatively, understand that it can take certain people longer to come to terms with the situation.
Be prepared to correct any misinformation you may hear. For example, being transgender isn’t a social trend and there is evidence of gender variability going far back in time. Also, gender identity and sexual identity are two different matters. Someone who is transgender may be straight, gay or bisexual. The language people use is important. Transgender is an adjective describing someone. The correct way to say it is that “John is transgender.”
Unfortunately, even though by and large transgender people lead happy, successful lives, as a group they experience higher rates of mental challenges than the rest of the population. Warning signs that let you know they might be struggling include changes in school or job functioning, sleep and eating patterns, mood, the way their relationships with friends and family are going, and their ability to manage stress.
Depression and substance abuse are the most common mental health issues, and when the struggles are severe they can lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts. The rate of attempted suicides among transgender people is at around 41 percent, compared to the national average of 4.6 percent. The good news is that families have a huge impact. Attempted suicide rates plummet 57 percent when kids have affirming parents. Other things that have a notable positive impact on adjusting to the change include access to legal documentation consistent with their gender identity and experiencing low levels of discrimination.