Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Sometimes, when a child or teenager comes out to their parents as transgender, there is a lot of alarm and upheaval. While some parents are open-minded and accepting of their young person, other people have a very hard time accepting it. It can be a confusing and painful time in a family’s life for everyone.
However, it is important to remember that the child or teen is not yet ready to live on their own. They still need physical, emotional, and financial support. It is a parent’s job, whether or not they are comfortable with the child’s gender identity, to provide that support and love. While this topic deserves much more space than a mere blog post, here are some basic starting points for families where a transgender child or adolescent is present.
Transgender is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of people whose gender identity is different from their biological sex. That is, a child may have been born with female genitalia but identify as male, or as androgynous (having aspects of both male and female genders), or as gender-fluid, gender-variant, genderqueer, etc.
There are many different ways that people can identify in terms of gender. A person whose gender identity agrees with their genitalia or biological sex is called cisgender.
Not every person who identifies as transgender needs or wants gender affirmation surgery, to feel comfortable with their bodies matching their gender identification. Gender affirmation surgery used to be called sexual reassignment surgery, but that term is out of date.
Some people feel that hormone replacement therapy is sufficient, and others may choose to not alter their bodies but identify as the opposite gender or as gender-variant. However, once a person has made the transition through a hormonal or surgical modification to have congruence between their gender identity and their bodies, they prefer to be called simply, “man” or “woman” rather than “transgender man” or “transgender woman.”
How the person chooses to identify is up to them, however. If the person chooses a new name that fits their authentic identity, please call them by this name and do not "dead-name" them. That can be very disrespectful.
Identifying as transgender does not necessarily mean that the person is gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate things, but they tend to get lumped together because of society’s lack of understanding and education about these topics.
Sexual orientation refers to whom a person is attracted sexually or romantically. A person can be transgender and still identify as heterosexual, or they may identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Transgender people do not like to be referred to as “trannies.” That is an offensive term. Just like anyone who is different from the mainstream, they don’t like to be ridiculed, mocked, teased, or rejected by others because of their difference. Parents and siblings would do well to check their own feelings of discomfort and find a more loving way to treat their child, brother, or sister.
Do you think you caused your child to be transgender/nonbinary?
The causes of being transgender are not well-known. However, it is safe to assume that it’s not a negative condition that bad parenting caused.
There’s no need to throw blame around, or even to see being transgender as sickness or curse. In fact, viewing that way makes the child or adolescent unnecessarily insecure about themselves. There is enough pressure from society at large coming from ignorance and bigotry (called trans-phobia) without family members turning on each other and shaming one another.
Being transgender can be seen as a natural variance in gender identification. When seen that way, there is really nothing to feel bad about for anyone.
Many transgender children as young as four or five years old know that they don’t feel quite right in their bodies. According to Division 44 of the American Psychological Association, kids usually know their gender identification between ages two and five; they often become aware of their sexual orientation at ages nine to 10.
How to treat your transgender youth
First and foremost, if you are confused or upset about this as parents, get some education and some help. There are some great organizations like PFLAG and GLAAD that have lots of great information. Just as you would want to know how to feed your child properly with the best nutritious food and supplements, so too you would want to know how to care for someone whose needs you don’t yet know. Therefore, it’s vital to find out more about your child’s gender development.
If transgender people and sexual orientation variance make you uncomfortable emotionally, then I recommend you get professional help from a psychotherapist knowledgeable about LGBTQQIA issues.
If your child or teen is struggling with feeling rejected, depressed, or confused, get them some help from a therapist who is gender-affirming. This will help them and you adjust to the child’s new identity.
Providing support emotionally and a place to talk openly about their gender identity is a great place to start as a parent. This includes creating a safe space in the home. If siblings want to tease or ridicule the transgender youth, don’t allow it. Educate and explain what is going on so the siblings can be supportive too.
If the school environment is not safe or supportive, advocate for your child or teenager. Do not let him, her, or them be bullied or mistreated by students or staff.
Don't misgender your child!
Use the preferred name and pronouns of the child or teen. If the child wants to be called a different name, use that name rather than what you used to call them (see the definition of “dead name” above). If they were born female but want to be called “he” or “zie,” use those pronouns. It is a sign of respect and courtesy, and it affirms their chosen identity.
If the child’s coming out is causing friction in the home, seek family counseling so you can all get the support and adjustment help you need. Please note that forcing them to be the gender that you, or society, or your extended family wants them to be is not only unkind, but it is also abusive. So is “conversion therapy,” which forces transgender, lesbian, gay, or bisexual people to conform to cisgender or heterosexual standards.
It can be a confusing, difficult time in your family, or it can be a chance for you to pull together and get closer as a family. The choice is yours, based on the attitude and actions that you take. I hope that you choose the path of growing closer, more loving, and more accepting.
If you need help with this, please call 661-233-6771 for an appointment. I would be honored to help you through this journey.
[i] This information was adapted from a course on transgender mental health issues by Dr. Davina Kotulski for the Zur Institute.