When I used to work for the Trevor Project, sometimes I’d get calls from parents who didn’t know what to do because their young adult child had just come out to them as transgender. They wanted to support that child as best as they could, but were often stunned by the news. “My daughter says she wants to be a boy,” callers would say. “What do I do?”
These were my favorite calls. I felt like being transgender myself allowed me to give parents another perspective as they tried to figure out how to support their children. I was able to answer many of their questions and allay their fears, while also advocating for kids who were like the kid I once was.
If your daughter says she wants to be a boy (or your son says he wants to be a girl), there’s a few things you can do that’ll be helpful.
[NOTE: This article is intended for parents of young adults — people over the age of 18 who are legally able to make their own decisions regarding transition. While some of the advice I have to give might also pertain to younger people, the issue of transgender teens and children is more complicated and requires parents to make decisions on their behalf that are beyond the scope of this article.
In addition, please keep in mind that though my opinion is based on my experience as a life coach and as a transgender person, it’s meant for general purposes only and not meant to be advice about any specific situation. Please feel free to contact me for a consultation if you have specific questions about your situation.]
Take Some Time to Sit With Your Feelings
I know it seems counterintuitive to focus on your own feelings when it feels like your child really needs you and you’re desperate to support them.
But here’s the thing: your child’s feelings about their gender identity are all new to you.
You’ve known this child as a boy or as a girl for over a decade and probably picked out a name for them that meant something special to you. (One of the most difficult things for me was that I was named after a grandparent who had died before I was born and I felt guilty about letting go of that name.) You may be wondering how you missed the signs or if your child’s feelings are real. You may be sad or angry or confused or just plain overwhelmed.
It’s important to sit with these feelings because you can’t support your child in any meaningful way until you’ve processed your own feelings about their gender identity.
I know, because I’ve been on the other side of this, that your kid might be super-impatient for you to get with the program and feel like you’re rejecting them because you can’t right away. But the problem is, transition is a process for everyone — including you. It’s going to take time for you to adjust, and the longer you’ve known this child by their old name and pronouns, the longer it’s going to take to get used to the change.
So begin by thinking about how you feel and talking about it with people you trust. Communicate with your child that you love and accept them but that it’s going to take time to process this.
Be Open to Learning About Your Child's Experience
Honest communication is the key to supporting your child.
In some ways, dealing with a kid who identifies as a different gender than you expected isn’t different than other parenting issues. The key is to listen carefully, reserve judgment, and ask questions to understand better where your child is coming from.
You’ll want to clarify exactly what your child is feeling. Does your daughter want to be a boy, or does she feel she is a boy? This is an important distinction! If your daughter just wants to be a boy or wishes she were a boy, that’s a totally different thing than feeling she is a boy and she may need something totally different.
If your child feels they ARE a different gender, you’ll want to know what that means for them, what options they’re considering, and how they want to proceed.
The most important thing is the kind of support they’re looking for from you and what they DON’T want you to do. For example, although your child may have trusted you with their gender identity, not everyone is comfortable using their new name and pronouns in public or even in front of all family members. So you’ll want to talk about this so that you don’t accidentally do something that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsupported.
Give Your Child Space to Explore
Transition is neither a one-size-fits-all thing or a one-and-done type of thing.
It’s a process that requires a lot of patience as you explore. I felt like I was going through a second adolescence as I began this journey because I tried on different types of clothes, different haircuts, and different ways of thinking and talking and being, to see what I was comfortable with.
Sometimes a transgender person might not know exactly what they want or need to do until they experiment. Before I began hormones, I was sure I wanted top surgery, and later changed my mind. Of course, some things are irreversible (surgery, some effects of taking cross-sex hormones), so it’s best not to start them until you are sure. But other things — like seeing how you feel when you go out in public dressed in a certain way or how it feels to use a particular name or pronoun — are totally changeable.
Parents often ask me how to support their children as they experiment. I think the most helpful thing is to stay in the present with them. Don’t assume anything is permanent until they tell you that it is, and don’t joke about it if their pronouns, names, or thoughts about their gender identity change over time.
If your young adult is planning on going the medical route, it’s not helpful to directly challenge them (“Are you sure? You know it’s irreversible.” but you can state your concerns in respectful ways:
- Use a lot of “I statements.” If you’re worried that your child is making an irreversible mistake, you can state those feelings without making them sound like facts by saying things like “I’m worried that you may…” or “The idea of you having surgery scares me because…” This allows you to discuss how you feel with your child without imposing your will on them.
- Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions that don’t have yes or no answers, and asking them gives the answerer space to make his or her own decision. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” is a close-ended question. “What do you think might happen if you do that?” is more open-ended and invites thought.
- Talk in terms of possibilities. Use the words if, may, or might as much as possible when discussing your concerns. For example, “I think it might be better if…” or “You may feel X if…”
And don’t forget to listen and accept your child’s answers when you state these concerns! Your young adult child is an adult and the decisions ultimately are theirs to make. Giving them the space to make those decisions while being there for them regardless of the outcome is the best way you can support them as a parent.
Take Small Steps
Once you’ve talked to your child and found out what they want from you, the next step is to begin to move forward towards accepting your child’s current gender identity.
It often helps to take small steps. For example, I once spoke to a mother who was struggling to accept and support her transgender daughter’s gender identity. Throughout the conversation, she used her child’s old gender pronouns, and then towards the end I asked her what she thought of using the child’s new gender pronouns when they were at home, which she agreed to do.
This was a good first step. It showed a growing acceptance of the child’s gender identity and allowed the mother to support her child in a tangible way.
Similarly, you might begin by using your child’s chosen pronouns or name when talking to others at home or when speaking to them. Remember to always follow your child’s boundaries as you take this step — if they don’t want you to use their pronouns or name in front of certain people, don’t do it.
Be Patient With Yourself
Even if you do everything I’ve suggested, the first few months after your child shares their gender identity with you may be rough.
Many transgender young adults are impatient for their families to fully accept their transition and may feel frustrated, angry, or disrespected if you don’t do it right away. I understand that because I was one of them once, and it was hard for me to see that my parents needed to go through a transition too in order to do what I needed them to do.
But the bottom line is that you’re not going to be able to just switch to using a different name and pronoun overnight for someone who you knew differently for as long as you’ve known your child. It’s important not to beat yourself up if you make mistakes or if you’re just not ready.
Keep talking to your child and make sure they know that you are trying to be as supportive as you can be and that this is new for you.
Hopefully, as time goes by this will get easier for all of you. In addition, you can speed up the process by getting help from someone who has been there.
It may be helpful for you to reach out to your local PFLAG branch and to find out what other support exists in your area for parents of transgender children.
Have questions or comments about supporting your transgender young adult child? Feel free to reach out in the comments below.