Updated: Apr 6, 2022
Your child just shared with you that they are transgender. They informed you of their new chosen name and asked you to start referring to them using new pronouns. Your mind is flooded with questions, fears and doubts. To you, this may seem out of nowhere, and you wonder if it is a phase, or if they are just "testing you." You can tell from the way they are talking to you that they are worried that you might not support them or understand. This isn't included in any parenting manual, and you feel unprepared. You want to do the right thing for your child, but you have no idea what that is. What do you do?!
Often the coming out process for transgender kids is just that - a process. Here are some basic starting points from which you can grow into your role as an incredible, supportive, affirming parent of a transgender child.
Let your child know that you love them unconditionally. Your child has trusted you enough to share this with you, and often it feels to them as though they are risking everything to do that. The very first thing they need is for you to reassure them that you love them and accept them, no matter what. This should not include any disclaimers or conditions - no buts allowed!
Take their lead. Don't second guess what your child is telling you. It is highly likely that they have been feeling this way for a very long time - this is usually not a decision that kids come to lightly. Be careful not to fall into the common trap of assuming this is a "phase" or that they are just following a "fad". Take your child's lead. Even if they do change their mind down the road, your relationship and their trust in you will be stronger because you listened and validated them in this moment.
Use their chosen name and pronouns. This can be very difficult at first (see the next bullet point). But your child needs to see that you are willing to make the effort. After all, if their own parent won't, why would anyone else? It can be helpful to practice away from your child - with friends or other family members, for instance. Practice talking about your child using their new name and pronouns. It really does get easier the more you do it. If you do make a mistake (and you will!), correct yourself quickly and move on without a big apology.
Don't let your child see if you are struggling. Many, if not most, parents struggle emotionally when their child comes out as transgender. There are many factors that influence this, and it is completely understandable. It does not make you a bad parent. However, it is so important not to let your child see or hear about your struggles. Your child does not want to hurt you, and there can be tremendous guilt when they feel that they have hurt you just by sharing their true identity. If you need to talk to someone, which you most likely will, find a friend or family member to talk privately with, or talk to a counselor to work through your feelings. The more you are able to truly accept and, ultimately, celebrate, your child's authentic self, the better you will be as a parent and ally for your child.
Educate yourself. Our children are way ahead of us on this. They have a whole vocabulary, complete with subtle nuances, complicated acronyms and brand new concepts, that we adults did not grow up with. There is a lot to learn! Your child can be a great teacher to you - ask them about their identity, what it means to them, and how you can be a good support system for them. They are happy to share and it feels good to them when you show interest! Allowing them to position themselves as an expert can help increase their confidence and help them practice for when they encounter these questions in everyday life. If you need more information (and you probably will!), take to the internet, find some good books, or seek out parent coaching with someone who specializes in this area. Before you know it, you will find yourself in the role of the expert and will be educating those around you!
Be an advocate for your child. Our LGBTQ+ kids need people to advocate for them - why wouldn't you want to be the first one to do so? As parents, there are endless ways we advocate for our kids over the course of their lifetimes. LGBTQ+ kids face more prejudice and cruelty than most and they really do need people in their corners. You may find you need to advocate for them at schools, doctor's offices, sporting events, and even with family or friends. Your child will be thankful that they can rely on you, and others will learn from your example.
It will take time for you to process through this major life transition with your child, and that is understandable. However, if you use these tips as your starting point, they will set you on the path to being the supportive, affirming parent your child needs. This will help your child to thrive in their authentic identity, and grow a stronger bond between you. It's a win-win, and you can do it. Way to go, parent!
Rebecca Degnan, LPC, is the founder and owner of Prism Counseling and Support LLC in CT, supporting the LGBTQ+ community and their loved ones through individual, family and group counseling and professional development workshops for schools and businesses. More information at prismcounselingct.com.
The Trans Lifeline connects trans people to the community support and resources they need to survive and thrive. 877-565-8860