1. Will you always love me?
This is the key question for transgender youth, whether they ask it directly or not. This question is far more important than the words “I’m trans” or “I’m non-binary.” It is essential that you express affection when your child discloses their gender to you, and that you continue to do so. Show your child that they are loved, even if you are struggling to accept this change in their identity. Warmth, respect, and displays of physical and emotional affection are more important now than ever. Don’t ever hesitate to say, “I love you.”
2. Keep Talking – and Listening
Your child may think that your silence on this topic means that you are angry with them. Parents who talk with and listen to their child or teen in a way that invites an open discussion about gender can help them feel loved and supported. It’s important to let them talk and for you to sometimes raise the topic. This gives them permission to do so as well. Discuss news items, characters on TV or films, or a friend you know to open up discussion.
Even if it feels uncomfortable, keep up a flow of communication so your child feels comfortable continuing to talk to you. This includes talking with your child about their gender identity and experiences even when you are uncomfortable. Listening is as important as what you say. Ask how you can help and what your child needs. You don’t need to have all the answers, you just need to be there for them.
3. Make Sure Your Child Feels Affirmed and Supported
When your child discusses their gender identity, you may be tempted to try to figure things out by asking questions or suggesting alternative ideas and explanations. Instead, as one therapist for families with transgender kids says, “When your kid says they are transgender, just go with it.” What does this look like? When your child brings up gender, refrain from arguing when they tell you who they are or what they need. More importantly, try to use the name or pronouns they prefer. Although this might be the most difficult, using the name and pronouns your child requests may also be the most important choice parents can make to show transgender kids they are loved, accepted, and supported. Some other examples of actions that demonstrate your support and affirmation:
Take time to come to terms with your own feelings and reactions, so you can respond calmly and use respectful language.
Try to get to know their friends and romantic partners.
Listen in a way that invites open discussion about their gender. Be curious but not prying.
Continue to include them in family activities.
Help your child find support organizations and go with them.
4. Relationship is Paramount
When a child is transgender, parents have a cascade of emotions to deal with but that takes time. Try to hold emotions in check, focus on your relationship, express love and affection, and let them know you are trying to understand. It’s important to know your actions and words can support your child even as you struggle. Your child’s perception of your acceptance or rejection has a huge impact.
Although it is vital for parents to sort through feelings and learn about what it means to be transgender, the child should not be the source of reassurance or information. As best you can, accept what your child tells you without asking why, when, what, and how, as these questions can feel like an interrogation. To the best of your ability, offer responses that do not include demanding explanations, asking for reasons, voicing doubts, or expressing sadness, worry, or fear.
The good news? Kids can tell if parents are trying, even when parents struggle or make mistakes. According to recent research with transgender teens, the adolescents always rated their parents to be more supportive than the parents rated themselves. “There are no medical side effects to listening and giving hugs, or trying to use your child’s preferred name and pronoun.” You will be adjusting to changes for a long time, but gestures of love, support, openness and reassurance are supportive to your child. Your effort to build and sustain the relationship is key.
5. Stand Up for Your Child
You may hear negative comments made about your child or transgender people. How you speak about your child or transgender people can be as important as what you say directly to your child.
Speak up with a different point of view and be aware your child is probably listening. Your words are a powerful witness to your support. Even if you are unsure, skeptical, or upset, a simple statement such as, “I don’t think that’s true” or “I don’t know about that” when responding to negative comments or stereotypes will let your child know that you are on their side.
Make it known that you will not accept discrimination, teasing, or insults to your child (e.g. “I don’t think that’s OK to say”).
Defend your child and advocate for them, even amid your own process of coming to acceptance about this (e.g. “They’re figuring it out, I’m supporting them, and I hope you will too.”).
Insist that family members treat your child with respect, (e.g. “I know you don’t understand, but please don’t criticize/tease/deny/etc…”).
6. Help Your Child Envision and Believe They Can Be a Happy Adult
Your acceptance and optimism helps your child envision a positive future and counteracts the hopelessness and sense of isolation that contribute to suicide and destructive behaviors. In one study, within families that were rated as very accepting, 92% of LGBTQ youth believed they would have good lives (92%) and most wanted to become a parent (69%).10 While this statistic is not specific to families with transgender children, it does reflect the impact family acceptance can have on building optimism and a hopeful future outlook for youth who don’t fit most cultural norms.
Helping your child build a positive view of their future can be a strong support.
Doing this is not difficult. As with any child, it is important to encourage your child by helping them build on natural strengths, foster hope and optimism, avoid risky behaviors, and practice self-care both physically and emotionally.11 Help them find activities, sports, clubs or service work that can provide balance and variety as they learn skills. Ask about their dreams, what they would like to be, what their hopes are for education, work, and their adulthood or future. Building a mental picture of a positive future can help counterbalance current struggles.
15 Reasons to Tell Your Child ‘I Love You
How Parents Can Support Their Transgender Teens
A list of more “Behaviors That Help” is located in Dr. Caitlin Ryan’s booklet, Supportive families, healthy children: Helping families with lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender children
“Somebody, your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour — and in the oddest places! — for the lack of it .”
“If they have a supportive family from the beginning, children who are transgender and gender-expansive don’t experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation or suicide compared with cisgender peers. Without family support, all those mental-health risks increase substantially. And having family use a child’s preferred name and pronoun has been shown to be productive.”
M.D. Associate Professor of Pediatrics Stanford Medicine
“You can be your child’s anchor, their safe place. Don’t ever drop your end of the rope.”