Below are some hard questions parents often ask and answers that can be helpful. There are many other sources for frequently asked questions but here we focus on questions often not answered elsewhere.
Why is suicide emphasized so much as a risk?
Because suicide is the highest risk of death for transgender and LGBTQ individuals.
Because most teen suicides are impulsive with little or no planning and 70% occur in the victim’s homes.3
As a cause of death, suicide is:
- 12th leading cause of death in the US1
- 3rd leading cause of death among US teens2
- 1st cause of death among gay and lesbian youth3
- The suicide attempts among transgender persons ranges from 32% to 50% across the countries.4
SPEAK also provides warning signs to look for:3
- Giving away prized possessions
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Change in eating habits and sleep patterns
- Extreme personality changes
- Aggressive, destructive, or defiant behavior
- Neglect of personal appearance or hygiene
- Increase in alcohol or drug consumption
- Talking, writing or drawing about their own death
- Withdrawing from family or friends
Who are we now? As parents? As a family?
Although it may feel as if everything has changed, in most ways you are the same family you have been. The child who comes out to you is the same person you loved moments before. Daily decisions and activities may change gradually but try to take time, keep normal routines as much as possible, allow things to settle into new patterns gradually, and focus on communication and affection.
Let us offer some reassurance. On our parent stories page you can search on transgender stories. One of the last questions we ask is: Knowing what you know today, would you want your child to “stay in the closet”? Why?
In story after story the answer is “No”. The reasons may vary, but the general answers are because their child is happier and their family stronger for having weathered this change together. We hope you find this true as well.
What about my dreams and expectations?
You’ve probably imagined possible futures for your child that seem out of reach now. The death of dreams and shattered expectations may be hard to bear, but try to focus on the bigger picture. Parents hope for many things for a child: good health, a happy life, close friends, a good education, a job, a loving relationship, a way to serve in the world, and many more.
All of these can still be dreams, though the details of how they occur may differ. Dream big for your child – maybe dream bigger than ever before. They need your hopeful view and encouragement.
Will my child have a lonely, miserable life?
You might be worrying that this means no marriage partnership, no children, or no happiness. Despite your own fears, it’s important to help your child dream a positive future. For LGBTQ individuals, hopelessness can breed self-destructive behaviors and despair can breed suicidal thoughts.
To help counteract this risk, one of the most important things a parent can do is hold a hopeful view of the future and share that with their child. And the truth is, many, many LGBTQ people lead productive, connected lives with loving partners and families.
Sometimes a minor shift in your own dream can help and basic dreams still hold:
- The dream of a great spouse for your child is at heart the hope for a good partner, one who loves and supports your child.
- Loneliness is greatly counterbalanced by strong family connections — which you can help sustain.
Check out It Gets Better, either the book or website. Both are full of encouraging stories that can help you build a positive vision of the future. Your child can also find encouragement there as well.
I want to tell my closest friend/relative. Should I?
It may feel strange not telling a close friend. You may really need to talk with someone about what you are feeling. Your needs are important, but you have to carefully choose where you find support and find a safe place to talk. Very few people come out to their parent and the world in the same day. It’s a gradual process over time, and you have to be patient and let that unfold.
You want the family to allow the child to remain in control of the story and how it spreads. Telling too many people is like spilling glitter – you can’t get it all back in the bottle.
Consider these points:
- When you tell someone, you are “outing” your child. Consider whether your child will be exposed to comments, opinions, scrutiny, gossip.
- If it’s a relative or someone the child knows well, your child has a relationship with them as well. It’s even more important for your child to be comfortable with them knowing.
- You may wonder if people notice differences, but many may not know or notice changes in your family. As your transgender child’s transition progresses — as appearance and names/pronouns change –you are able to be more open because your child is more open. Keep pace.
Finally, remember this is not your story to tell. It’s your child’s story. It is imperative to let the child decide when he or she is ready to come out and to whom. You must be your child’s protector by doing what your child needs in terms of openness or privacy. Your story is your own experience, but your role as a parent involves supporting your child in the degree of openness comfortable for them.
Will I have grandchildren?
Many parents long for grandchildren and you may think having a transgender or LGBTQ child means you won’t have grandchildren. This will be your child’s choice, just as it would be in any relationship. They may conceive, adopt, foster, or choose not to parent. Don’t assume the outcome. Let time play out the situation, just as it would in any partner relationship.
How do I decide when to tell people?
It differs depending on the situation. But as a rule, you let your child decide who knows what and when. Don’t “out” them to someone unless your child says that it is OK with them.
What is the “second closet"?
The term “in the closet” refers to the choice that transgender and LGBTQ individuals make to keep their identity to themselves. Family members are said to be in the “second closet” when they are keeping the child’s identity private from others in the family or community. The second closet can be either a positive or a negative situation and it’s vital that those trusted by the child understand the difference.
It is positive if the child is deciding who knows and when, and those trusted are abiding by the child’s desire for privacy or openness. You are supporting their preference and allowing them to control their experience.
It is negative if the child is ready to be more open and the family resists. This makes the child the “family secret.” For the child, this can feel like rejection, rebuff the trust the child showed through their honesty, and instill a sense that their family is ashamed.
It can be difficult to find the right step in each situation but asking your child and keeping pace with their wishes are key.
How do I deal with my child dating someone whose parents don’t know their child is transgender or LGBTQ?
As a rule, each child’s decision to come out must be their own. If the other young person is not out to their family, they may not be ready or it may not be safe for them at home. You are not obligated to tell others that your child is transgender or LGBTQ, or that their child is. You can encourage the child to tell their parents when they are ready, and offer to help in any way you can with that step, but to tell the parents without the child’s permission could damage multiple relationships.
If you encounter criticism from the other parent later (why didn’t you tell me?), you may be faced with a tough conversation. Be as honest as you can about your reasoning and up front about any difficulty you may have felt around the choice to remain silent. It may be helpful to share that although in many cases your policy is to inform other parents when things arise with their child, sharing about a child’s identity before they are ready can be hurtful to the child. Even after explaining that protecting the child’s privacy is ultimately a choice to protect the child, the other parent may not understand. The choice to prioritize a child’s wishes, privacy, and potentially their safety over harmony with that child’s parent is not an easy position to take, but ultimately this is what we recommend.
Do I have to tell my church or house of worship?
No, but telling depends on the church. There are affirming faith communities of all religions. (See Faith-Based Organizations at www.strongfamilyalliance.org.) However, if your family is closely connected to a faith community, rejection by that community can be damaging, particularly if the child feels judged.
If you anticipate judgmental reactions, it may no longer be a good place for your family. Consider finding a more accepting faith community. If you decide to stay and your child is wounded by the church, the risk is that your child may eventually come to question or even reject his or her faith entirely.
Why did my child tell me?
You may almost wish you didn’t know. The good news is children decide to tell their parents for good reasons. They may long to remove hidden barriers and to be accepted for who they are. Many wish to be honest with their family and may feel they have lived a lie with the people they cherish most. Their openness is an act of courage and shows deep trust in you. Try to honor them for honoring you with the truth.
Should I encourage my child to hide their transgender identity to keep them safe?
Coming out is a very personal decision, but recent research shows it is better for them to come out when they are ready rather than hide when they are wanting to be more open. A 2015 study, entitled Coming Out At School and Well-being in Young Adulthood,5 found hiding their identity did not keep them safe and had other negative consequences. Key findings were:
- LGBT students experienced school victimization regardless of whether they attempted to conceal their identity or openly disclosed their LGBT identity. Thus hiding was not successful, on average, in protecting LGBT students from school victimization and bullying.
- LGBT young adults who tried to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity at school reported more victimization and, ultimately, higher levels of depression than LGBT students who came out or were open about their LGBT identity at school. Feeling that they had to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity was associated with depression among LGBT young adults.
- Being out about one’s LGBT identity at school has strong associations with self-esteem and life satisfaction and with low levels of depression in young adulthood.
Your child’s decision is of primary importance. Your efforts to support them is a close second.
Why do other teens shame or shun my child?
This can be complex. Unfortunately, it can be a frequent experience in schools. There may be many reasons, but some common ones are:
- Peer pressure – Teens long for a sense of belonging, which may come with feeling “the same as” their friends. They may avoid someone they learn is LGBTQ simply because he or she is different.
- Fear of association – “They’ll think I’m gay/trans/etc. too.” Because of the anti-LGBTQ messages in our society, peers may worry others will make assumptions about them too.
- Condemnation by their families or church – They may be reflecting what they have heard or been taught. Kids often voice the values and beliefs of their parents, and when parents make statements against the gay community, their kids may too.
- Projection — Sometimes people who are LGBTQ (and are uncomfortable with this) deny their own feelings and accuse others of having those very feelings. It can be a way of avoiding suspicion and diverting attention to others.
- Deflection — Gossiping about someone who is LBGTQ to test other people’s reactions. This tactic allows kids to preview what might happen if they were to come out.
- Otherness – Emphasizing the “difference” factor. Unfortunately, it is human nature to confirm an idea of ourselves as “good” or “right” by calling out someone else as “bad” or “wrong.” Adolescents especially are looking for belonging and/or fitting in.
- Prurience – Focus on sexual activity rather than the person. Adolescent, who are often preoccupied with sex, may be especially prone to ignore the whole person and focus solely on their sexuality.
Please see www.glsen.org for information on bullying and school programs.