Scarleteen Confidential: Parenting Gender Non-Conforming Youth
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If you follow the news, you'll notice there've been a number of high profile issues involving trans (short for transgender) teens or kids. For those who may not know, trans refers to individuals who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Many trans or gender non-conforming youth come to us looking for support they're having difficulty finding, or don't feel safe looking for elsewhere. We know from talking with these users that one of the biggest factors in their overall well-being -- and how hard or easy all of this is on them -- is how supported and safe they feel in their identities when around their families.
With that fact in mind, we wanted to create a guide for parents about what to do in the event that your child comes out to you as trans, or is otherwise questioning their gender identity and identifying themselves to you as (or possibly as) gender noncomforming. This list is created with an eye towards how can you support them while dealing with any emotions you might be having as a result of the announcement.
In the conversation: Dos and (oh-my-goodness-please) Do Nots
I think one of my biggest concerns about telling my parents is suddenly I'm a big deal, and a point of attention once they know they know. Even if they don't say anything they will think things. Even if they aren't judging me I will feel like they are. I don't know if I could live like that. And what if they disown me or kick me out or something?
Do: Listen. Just listen.
Do not: Turn this into the Spanish Inquisition. You may have dozens of questions, from "But how can you be sure?" to "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" Now is not the time for them. Your child might bring up those points later, but right now what they need most from you is reassurance that you love them, you're not ashamed of them and that you're here for them.
Do: Ask if there's anything specific they would like you to do to make them feel accepted or safe at home (pronoun changes, helping them buy clothes that they're comfortable in, etc).
Do: Ask them to what degree they would like to be "out" at the moment. Some trans youth want everyone (school, friends, family) to know right away so that they will use the correct name/pronouns around them. Others may want only a few people to know at first while they work out which spaces or people are safe to be themselves around.
Do Not: Tell them they are a disgrace, or bad, or that you're heartbroken by their announcement. I wish this was something I didn't have to write, but those are reactions that parents have to trans children.
Do: Check ourself with anything you may want to say or ask using this yardstick: would you say or question this were your child cisgender? For example, "How do you know for sure you're a girl?" probably isn't something you'd ask or suggest if their gender "matched" their biological sex. It wouldn't be sound in that situation, and it's also not in this one.
I'm scared she would be upset with me, that everything would change between us and go sour.
Do: Did I mention reassure them that you still love and accept them? I'll say it again just to be sure.
Ongoing Support: Dos and Do Nots
Do Not: Make your child be your therapist or otherwise process your emotions about their identity or transition in front of them. You may feel scared, or confused, or feel like you've "lost" the son or daughter you had. Those emotions? They happen away from your child, because your child does not need to be made to feel guilty (even unintentionally). And if you need a counselor or therapist to help you with your feelings, by all means, seek one out! Trans-friendly therapists are becoming more and more accessible, and aren't just for transgender people: they're for the families of transgender people, too.
Incidentally, if you find yourself feeling as though you have to "mourn" the son or daughter you had, that's a common reaction. However, I want to offer up a thought on that end. Your child being trans does not erase your lives together up to this point, nor the person they are and who you have known. It does not, ultimately, change the child you have. They have the same aspirations, memories, qualities, and flaws that they've always had. The pronouns, or name may change, the clothes may change, but they are still your child, and still the person you love and have known them to be.
Do: Educate yourself from reliable sources. Read works by trans authors discussing their experiences. There is a growing number of great, thoughtful resources about understanding trans lives and supporting trans loved ones. If you'd like a couple great books to start with, check out Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin and The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie A. Brill.
Do: Find support for your child. A trans-friendly counselor, therapist or youth support group is likely to be a godsend for your child as well as all of your family, both so they can have someone educated and accepting dedicated to them in all of this, and to help all of you navigate their identity and any part of the process with it they may want to embark upon. Find support for yourself if you feel you need it, too . There are organizations and qualified, caring professionals for families of trans youth to share experiences and support each other.
Do: Know that you may slip up in the early days. The wrong pronoun or name may come out, you may say "son" when you should say daughter. That's okay. If that happens, just correct yourself, gently apologize and continue the conversation. Extra bonus: that will show them how others should respond when they do the same, and empower them when it comes to feeling it's a given they should be respected in this way.
Do Not: Use the fact that this is new and you are learning as an excuse to not try at all.
Do: Stick up for your child. This could mean standing with them if they run up against issues in school (like being allowed to use the bathroom they feel comfortable in) or correcting family members who misgender or otherwise try to invalidate their identity. This can be an incredibly hard thing to do. There are still many, many people who view trans folks as deviant or "unnatural." Some of those people may be friends or family. And, sadly, many otherwise reasonable people seem to become suddenly unreasonable when faced with trans people. So, be prepared to protect your child. Familiarize yourself with the non-discrimination laws in your state and county so that, if something goes wrong, you know what your options are. Come up with and practice some basic scripts for friends and family who who may be difficult (ask your child if they have any input on what they want said in those moments).
Do: Continue to listen to and trust your child when they say they need something, even if that something is hormones, hormone blockers, or surgery.
Do: Know that the situation may continue to change. For some trans folks, they feel that they fall solidly on one side of the gender binary or the other (either a boy or a girl). Others find that they don't quite fit within that binary, or that they want to take time to explore gender and gender expression for themselves.
Visibility and support of trans issues continues to grow, but that support will likely generate some push-back and hostility. But no matter what the overall cultural climate is, you supporting your child will mean that they will at least have one safe, welcoming space that they can call home.
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