If your child comes out to you as transgender, the first thing you should do as a parent is what you’ve hopefully been doing all throughout their childhood — convey your love and support for them and for who they are. Figuring out what that love and support looks and sounds like, though, is where some parents get tripped up.
So I talked with Dr. Diane Chen, pediatric psychologist and behavioural health director for the Family Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, about how parents can best support their transgender children.
The initial conversation
If your child shares with you that they are transgender, the best response you can give them is first to thank them for sharing that with you and to express your love of who they are, regardless of their gender identity.
“The most important piece is conveying to the child that they are loved for whomever they are at this moment, [and] who they are five years from now or 10 years from now,” Chen says. “Convey that consistency of love and support … so that the support is not tied to identity.”
She says parents often have regrets about how they react during that initial conversation, because while some parents may have long suspected their child is transgender, many other parents are surprised by the information. And that surprise may prompt them to say things like, “Are you sure?” or “This seems to have come out of nowhere,” or “Maybe this is just a phase.” If that’s the case, Chen says it’s never too late to course-correct and sit down again with the child.
When you do, acknowledge your initial surprise, as well as the courage it must have taken for them to start that conversation with you. Apologise for not knowing how to have better supported them during that time, and start over. One of the worst things a parent can do (besides outright rejection, of course) is to pretend like the conversation never happened or wait for the child to bring it up again.
“Adolescents will say, ‘Well, I tried to come out to my parents multiple times, and here are the multiple ways I’ve tried to do it,’” Chen says. “It didn’t always go as planned, but then they [the parents] never circled back around. So I always encourage parents, if they feel like they missed that boat, to come back and have that conversation with their child.”
Follow their lead
Transgender children are going to want or need different things, depending on their age, developmental stage, and personality. So if you’re not sure how exactly to support them, start by simply following their lead. Chen says for a child who comes out as transgender and seems generally happy — with no noticeable academic, social, emotional, or behavioural changes — simply supporting them and letting them be who they are may be enough for now. If instead they are struggling in any of those areas, there may be other interventions that would be beneficial to them.
“We don’t want to push a child to transition socially if that’s not something they’re ready for or that they want, because that in and of itself can be stressful,” she says. “I think it could certainly be helpful for parents to speak with their children about the range of possibilities that may be available to them.”
So if a child who was assigned female at birth tells their parents they are a boy, the parent might respond by saying something like, “OK, so what does that mean for you?” with follow-up questions about whether they’re comfortable with the name they’re using right now and whether they are still comfortable with she/her pronouns or if they’d like to start using different pronouns.
Parents can talk to their kids about what changes they’d like to make at home versus at school or with extended family or friends — these types of conversations can help parents figure out what transition-related supports their child is seeking.
Depending on the age of the child and their developmental stage, there may also be medical interventions that can help prevent gender dysphoria, as well, Chen says. You should speak with medical professionals about those options, which can begin as early as the start of puberty.
If your child hasn’t come out to you
Some parents may suspect their child is transgender based on clues they’ve seen throughout their childhood, or perhaps because they’ve experimented with different types of gender expression — but the parent may not be sure whether (or how) to address it with them. Chen says how a parent should proceed, in part, depends on the specific child.
“I think parents are experts of their own children,” she says. “Do you have a more inhibited, temperamentally shy child who maybe is not going to be as assertive in coming to you? Or do you have that kid who’s … generally saying whatever is on their mind?”
Even in the eight years since Chen began working in this field, she says she has seen a rise in diverse books for kids of all ages that feature characters with a variety of gender identities and expressions, which can help prompt these conversations. But there’s also a balance parents should try to strike here.
“You want your child to know it’s safe to explore and play with gender in a way that feels comfortable to them, but you don’t want to put pressure on a child to figure out what their gender identity is,” she says. “I think that’s the important piece to remember — just because a child exhibits gender-expansive or gender-diverse behaviours doesn’t necessarily mean that they are transgender or will ultimately identify as transgender. So I think it’s also important to give children space to explore without trying to fit kids into boxes.”
Everything we’ve discussed here is really just the beginning of your journey as a family, and chances are good that you’ll need some solid resources and support going forward. Here are a few organisations and books to get you started:
- Gender Spectrum
- The Human Rights Campaign
- Gender Diversity
- Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached, by Hillary Whittington
- The Conscious Parent’s Guide to Gender Identity: A Mindful Approach to Embracing Your Child’s Authentic Self, by Darlene Tando
And finally, it’s a good idea to ask around and find a local support group to connect with other parents in your area and provide opportunities for your child to meet other gender-diverse or transgender youth. You can start by looking for a PFLAG chapter near you.