It can be a shock to learn a child is transgender, and there are definite stages that most parents experience. The stages below do not always happen in order – or just once – and some may not occur at all. Some stages pass quickly, others slowly. These stages represent the struggle to accept an enormous change in your family.
Many life events can trigger feelings you thought you had worked through already. For instance, if your child begins to date, moves away to college, or encounters bullying or a hurtful comment, you may feel as if you have gone backwards to one of the earlier stages. This is common. Allow yourself to work through those feelings and regain your balance.
Stage 1 – Denial
Initial denial or disbelief is common. Although many of us might wonder if our child is transgender even before they tell us, usually we suppress and deny this possibility out of fear of what the truth might mean to our family, or our child’s future.
Even after a transgender child comes out, parents may hope that this is a phase, a rebellion, or an experiment. However, when a child takes the major step of telling a parent they have a different gender identity, it is important to take them at their word. This can be difficult, because it means truly facing what being transgender could mean for the child and for you. Most people don’t focus on understanding what being transgender means until it touches them personally. You may find yourself in new and uncharted territory.
Stage 2 – Grief
Grief is sadness about a loss. We may grieve the loss of the child we “knew” and the future we imagined. We mourn the disappearance of the life we envisioned for them. It takes time to grieve the death of the dreams for our child that center around gender-specific life events. For example, a father may experience sadness related to his expectation that he would walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
As with many changes, over time new dreams are built and new hopes arise. Some hopes may remain but broaden, such as changing the hope for a good wife/husband to hope for a good partner/spouse. But the fundamental hopes and dreams can endure, such as love and happiness, career success, or starting a family.
Stage 3 – Blame/Guilt
Many parents feel the need to determine a reason why, which may lead to guilt or blame. We blame ourselves, wondering if we did something “wrong.” We blame our children for “changing” and for forcing us to readjust our vision. We might even blame their friends, partners, or other transgender people, incorrectly believing that our child was drawn to this identity through the influence of others.
Research shows being gay or transgender is not the result of any specific choice, behavior, or event. A shift from the sex assigned at birth is not an illness, disease, or choice. Gender identity is a variant of human sexuality and development that arises as the result of complex interactions of biological, genetic, and hormonal factors. In addition, there is a growing understanding, especially among younger people, that gender is more like one point along a spectrum. That male and female are just two of many possible ways gender can be expressed and lived.
Stage 4 – Fear
We fear what we do not understand and for most parents there are many unknowns when it comes to what it means to be transgender. We fear reactions from others and telling what may feel like a difficult truth. We fear being judged and losing our friends, family, and faith community. We fear the hatred, violence, and discrimination our transgender child may encounter and endure. All of these are realistic possibilities for both parent and child, which makes it even more important to support each other and navigate the changes together.
Sometimes, fear may be justified. If you sense a friend or family member will be hostile, you can choose to protect your child by remaining silent about their transgender identity. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it feels supportive to your child.
Your child should determine who knows and when to tell, for they will bear the result. A transgender child may feel safest with just friends and family knowing. Or they may pursue appearance changes that make a more public statement. Whatever their level of expression, it’s important to let them set the pace and take the lead. Follow their cues. Ask if you are in doubt. For example, “Would you mind if I tell Aunt Kay you are transgender?”
If your child is open, it is important to keep pace and show support. When a family is not open about their child’s identity it is sometimes referred to as being in the “Second Closet.” This can be a good thing if the child needs privacy, but it can be a very bad thing if the child views it as the silence of shame.
Stage 5 – Anger
We may feel angry at…
Society or governments for allowing or promoting discrimination.
Ourselves for not recognizing the truth sooner.
Our child for causing upheaval in our family.
Other family members when feelings intensify either for or against the transgender child.
God for “allowing” our precious loved ones to be transgender, because their lives may be more difficult. “Why me?” and “Why my child?” are common feelings.
Our religious community for rejecting or condemning transgender people and their families.
It’s important to deal with your own anger and not direct it toward your child. Don’t expect your child to explain everything to you. Information can help combat anger, and educating yourself is a good first step, but this is your work to do. There are several books in our resources list that may be helpful to understand your experience. Talking with trusted family or friends or seeking counseling are also good options to help deal with anger.
It may help to recall that your child has honored you by trying to be truthful and honest. Deciding not to hide anymore and a longing to live more honestly and authentically is a strong motivation for many transgender individuals. Try to honor them by managing your emotions as you grow your understanding.
Stage 6 – Self-Realization
With this stage comes the realization that it is we, not our child, who must change. How?
Redraw our family picture to include this new reality
Support our child and the family they have or will create
Surround ourselves with other loving parents and friends
Find a nurturing faith community
Learn all we can and help others learn as well
Family members may not come to this understanding at the same pace, but as each person accepts and supports the transgender child, the child will gain an increased sense of safety and community.
Stage 7 – Acceptance
Quite simply, this means loving your transgender child, not in spite of who they are, but just as they are.
Your acceptance of your transgender child creates a safe space where they can build a good life and become their best self. They still need things parents can so powerfully provide, such as love, encouragement, understanding, and a hopeful view of the future. In addition, many parents find their child is happier, more resilient, and more open and connected with them as family acceptance grows.
You may become a resource for other families by helping them find support. It is also often helpful to read stories from parents and families who have shared your experience. You can read stories from other parents on our Family Stories page. When you are ready, consider sharing your story as well.
At the end of this guide, we include a reprinted article about raising a transgender son to provide the view from a parent further along in this journey.
SOURCE: “When Your Child is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, transgender or Queer” [Brochure]. Reconciling Ministries Network. Revised with permission
“The greatest freedom for me came when I realized that (her) being transgender was not a defect but a gift in my life… I have grown closer to my daughter and seen her becoming happier every year. This journey has made me a better father and a better person.”
Oregon father of a transgender daughter