You may have just learned that your child is transgender (including non-binary, gender expansive, and gender questioning). However, your child has probably been on this journey for months or years, also known as the “coming in” process. You have probably heard the term “coming out,” which means telling others about orientation or gender identity. For transgender youth, the idea of “coming in” points to how they are developing or becoming aware of their sense of gender within themselves.
Stage 1 – Self Discovery as Transgender
Becoming aware of gender identity can take time. Some people don’t become aware until puberty sets in. Self-discovery may include confusion, anxiety, denial of feelings, and worries about being accepted. This internal conflict often results in continuing to appear as the gender that others expect, either due to preference or because circumstances require it.
Sometimes individuals attempt to “overcome” or deny their gender identity, particularly if they fear being condemned. LGBTQ people in general are often “in the closet” at this stage, which refers to keeping their identity to themselves. However, many seek out information online or through reading or from friends. This stage may be deeply, privately maintained until near puberty, until the emotional struggle requires action, or until the individual is more independent. Some individuals only come in as transgender adults.
The process can be different for everyone. Sometimes there are early indications, although “playing with dolls” or “being a tomboy” are not necessarily signs that a child is transgender. Allow them to explore and follow their pace. Time will bring clarity: sometimes children may go back and forth, and others will be “persistent, insistent, and consistent” about their gender identity.
Stage 2 – Disclosure to Others
Disclosure is an ongoing process. The first step in this stage is sharing one’s authentic self with a close friend or family member. Often this is a peer or close friend, and parents are not always the first to know. Disclosure may extend to more people over time. Rejection may cause a return to Stage 1, in which gender identity is kept private. However, a positive response from others can lead to higher self-esteem, greater self-acceptance, and most importantly, continued communication and openness.
In particular, the way parents respond when children disclose a different gender identity or questions about gender may deeply shape both the child’s perspective about themself as well as the relationship with their parent. You don’t have to have all the answers, but it is important to listen, express a desire to understand, and show love and affection.
For transgender persons who choose to socially or medically transition, their appearance,
expression, pronouns, name change, and gender identity become more visible and their privacy will diminish. Parental and family support at this time is particularly important to provide a safe harbor from discrimination or negative reactions they may encounter.
Stage 3 – Socialization with Other Transgender People
As a transgender child begins to find and connect with others who also identify as transgender or LGBTQ, feelings of isolation and estrangement may diminish. A positive sense of self is strengthened by validation, education, support and acceptance by a community of others who have shared experiences. Positive role models who are transgender are particularly important during this stage.
Stage 4 – Positive Self-Identification
The hallmark of this stage is feeling good about one’s self, seeking positive relationships, and experiencing a sense of peace and fulfillment. At this point, the person begins to feel healthy and positive within their gender identity and the way they present themselves to others. Living as the gender with which they identify feels honest and true.
Stage 5 – Integration and Acceptance
This stage involves an openness and non-defensiveness about gender identity. Integration of this aspect of a person’s identity may manifest itself in different ways, which could be anything from openly sharing their gender and their transition story with others to simply living as their authentic self without explanation or backstory.
Affirming relationships, family, friends, and communities of faith greatly impact an individual’s ability to be fully integrated and self-accepting. At this stage, some individuals may become mentors or advocates for transgender or LGBTQ issues. It can affirm their success in claiming their identity to help others find resources, encouragement, and a personal path.
Stage 6 – A Lifelong Journey
Coming out as transgender does not happen just once. It is a lifelong process of discovering, accepting, and living within one’s gender identity. In our society, we usually assume that everyone is heterosexual and lives in their sex assigned at birth. Transgender people must continually decide under what circumstances and with whom they will discuss their gender identity. Often their issues of safety and acceptance are complex, and building a supportive community is an ongoing process. Family support and encouragement continue to be a strengthening resource throughout their experiences.
Adapted from “The Stages of Coming Out”, by Richard Niolon, Ph.D.
“How could I not have known? I’ve come to learn and accept it was because she didn’t fully know or understand it, let alone have the language to speak it out loud.” - Father of a transgender daughter. “Know that for every shred of despair, fear, anxiety, sense of failure you feel, it pales in comparison to what your child may have been going through”.