Take a Deep Breath
Right now, you may be feeling confused, angry, and skeptical. You may be in disbelief that your child could be transgender. But you should know this: if your child has come to you and disclosed their thoughts about feeling different inside from their outside appearance, you should feel great. After all, this means that as a parent, you've done your job.
First and foremost, your child came to you and was able to talk to you. Please keep that in mind!
It is vital to hear what your child is saying. As difficult as it may seem, you must keep your feelings in check. They are concerned only with their feelings and may not recognize your fears and concerns. They cannot understand how difficult it is for you to view your daughter as your son, or vice versa. It would help if you tried not to respond negatively because your child may never talk about this with you again.
Is My Child Really Transgender?
While nothing is cast in stone, there are two strong indicators that your child is, indeed, transgender. The first one is their discomfort with certain aspects of their bodies, often their genitals. The second is their desire to be perceived by others as the gender they feel they are.
By the time a child has finally told their parents they are transgender, they likely feel impatient and want to transition as soon as possible. They believe that they have been suffering for years and are not likely considering that their parents are having a hard time accepting their need to be the other sex.
Why Are They Telling Me Now?
As creative and imaginative as they are, younger children feel that their gender will somehow work itself out. But as your child gets older, the discordance with who they are inside and who they appear to be on the outside often becomes more disturbing. Puberty is often a painful reminder that the feelings won't resolve themselves. Many emotions can accompany this process, including depression, hopelessness, anger, disappointment, and fear.
A child—as for anyone—will find it hard to explain their feelings. They may be worrying that they will lose friends and be cast out by their parents. They may dislike seeing themselves in the mirror because they are disappointed that their outer appearance does not match their inner self. They may feel out of place in the bathroom and avoid outdoor activities like going to the beach. They may even try temporarily to please others, but the desire to be their authentic self will return.
At this point, you are likely to feel cautious and concerned about your child's safety. As a parent, many things can go through your mind. One may be a fear of the harassment your child could face, or even that the harassment they already face could worsen. But remember: If a child has support from home, this can help increase their confidence and put them at ease. This, in turn, may help others at school to be more accepting.
You may fear the physical harm others can enact. But consider the reality that youth who are not allowed to transition run a risk of depression, self-hatred, and perhaps even substance abuse; these are all indicators of potential self-harm.
You may fear that your child is mentally ill. It is possible that, in rare cases, that child has a simultaneously occurring mental illness in addition to identifying as transgender. But remember: being transgender is not, in and of itself, a mental disorder. And if a child believes that they are transgender, they are. A gender identity therapist can help your child clarify whether this is true or not.
But My Child Is Too Young!
Gender identity is an inherent knowledge one feels inside. It isn't like wanting a bicycle one day and then changing one's mind. Being transgender is a constant, disruptive reminder that their body and mind are not in sync for most children. Let this knowledge put your mind at ease about your child possibly going back-and-forth on their convictions because they are too young or being rebellious or seeking attention.
Finally, you may fear that your child will someday regret transitioning. However, my experience has shown that teens who feel strongly that they are transgender are most likely to continue feeling this way into adulthood. The vast majority of post-transition people never regret the decision they have made.
(Side note: You can expect those reversible hormonal interventions will be considered if your child is under the age of 16. After that age, cross-gender hormones will be the most likely option).
By allowing your child to transition at an early age, they will be able to begin living their life as they feel they should. They can be more focused on their life goals instead of constantly thinking about their body. With your help, they can build a solid foundation of confidence and self-worth.
Is My Child Actually Gay?
You might prefer believing that your child is a non-transgender gay man or lesbian because sexual minorities are accepted more readily than gender minorities in today's society. But just as one does not choose to be gay or lesbian, one doesn't choose to be transgender. Further, sexual attraction and gender identity are different aspects of the self; transgender people may go on to identify as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual in addition to being transgender.
In the beginning, some children may identify as lesbian or gay before realizing that they are transgender. This is partly because our society tells us that gender nonconformity (e.g., dressing masculinely or femininely or being attracted to the "opposite" gender) is always a part of sexual orientation. If your child "comes out" to you twice—first as gay or lesbian, then as transgender—know that the confusion doesn't lie with them but with the labels they've inherited from society.
How Will the Rest of the Family React?
Much of the discomfort you may be feeling emerges from society's ideas concerning transgender people [see Terms and Definitions in this section for more explanation of these terms]. You may have been taught that these identities are forms of sickness, or they are perverted or immoral. However, as the parent of a transgender child, you need to free yourself from negative beliefs and educate yourself. Your child is who they truly are is what matters most. And when they begin to feel happier, you will start to be happy for them as well.
Indeed, it would be great for every parent to be immediately accepting and willing to educate themselves on moving forward with their child's best interests and happiness in mind. However, this is not the case in many families.
There is often one willing parent and one parent who is obstinate and cannot face the facts. Keep the lines of communication open with the rest of your family, including siblings and a spouse (if applicable), but continue to do what you think is best for your child.
Initial Reactions Will Not Last Forever
While it's possible that your child informing you of their transgender identity can put a strain on the family—other siblings may or may not be open to change; maybe a father or mother says they want nothing to do with their transgender child—recognize that this may not stay the same forever. This is not a situation for blaming either spouse for their initial reactions because no spouse is responsible for unexpected situations.
There are many families in which transgender children end up homeless. Your awareness of such possibilities can help prevent that from happening to your child. Let them urge you to find support outside the family [See Finding Support below].
How Will Others React?
OMG, what will others think? It is natural to be concerned about the reactions of others in your family and extended circles. But in your child's best interests, you will need to get your feelings in check and educate yourself before you discuss their identity with people outside of your household.
When you do eventually speak to others, it is essential to initially acknowledge their discomfort and tell them you felt the same way in the beginning—but that you've decided to keep an open mind out of love for your child. You can ask them for their support and state that you will entertain any questions about your child's transition. During this time, you will begin to see that not only is your child transitioning, but you are as well.
Feelings of Loss
Address the fact that you may go through a grieving process yourself. This is a loss (or a symbolic "death") to you in some ways. These feelings emerge, in part, from realizing that specific hopes and dreams for your child's future will not be fulfilled. You wanted a little girl who would grow to become a woman, and now you've found that you're going to have a son (or vice versa). It would help if you took as much time as you need to accept this loss and take any self-care measures you usually do when grieving.
Let your child know that you are experiencing feelings of loss. This can help them begin to understand what a difficult adjustment their transition may be for you. But beyond informing them, it is not your child's responsibility to help you deal with this loss. There are support groups for parents facing the same issues to help them deal with challenging emotions and other concerns.
The advice you are reading is not meant to fulfill all your support needs. Reading online is only the beginning. The good news is that there are many viable options for education and help in today's world. There is a growing need for accurate and compassionate information for families with transgender children. The world is responding, albeit slowly.
The Internet offers a plethora of information that can be put to good use. However, use common sense rather than placing belief in everything you read. Many gender therapists, transgender health conferences, PFLAG meetings (PFLAG.ORG), and doctors offer valid information.
Above all, the most helpful step you can take is to keep an unbiased attitude toward whatever your child may be telling you. Do not be afraid to ask nonjudgmental questions. While it may be hard to hold back everything you want to say, you must remember that if your first response to your child is an objection, you can expect stubborn behavior when engaging in future discussions. They may not be willing to discuss this matter again and will likely feel rejected, or possibly even unloved, by you.
It is essential to realize that there is no exact answer for every issue that may come up. So you must get the appropriate help from a qualified therapist who will guide you concerning your emotions and shed light on the journeys transgender children undertake. In so doing, you will become supportive of your child and enable them to build self-confidence and become stronger as they forge ahead.
This short guide provides an introduction. As you move forward, you will encounter much more information, particularly assistance related to your child and their unique needs.
Most importantly, remember this: Don't panic.
You still have a child capable of living a happy and productive life, provided you are there as a parent to help support and assist them. It is by no means an easy journey, but one that can be successful and positive if approached with forethought and compassion.
A FEW TERMS & DEFINITIONS
The following definitions are relatively simple but do sometimes sound confusing. Imagine now the confusion a child must feel when they appear one way but feel another, and those around them are using words and pronouns that do not match their true gender.
A transgender person's internal gender identity does not match their body's biological sex (or some may refer to it as "assigned at birth" sex). "Transgender" may be used as an individual identity for someone who wishes to transition their gender socially and/or physically. However, it can also be used as an umbrella term encompassing other gender nonconforming (GNC) people, such as genderfluid and genderqueer people or cross-dressers.
A more antiquated term, "transsexual" refers to a more specific transgender identity; when a transsexual person's internal gender identity does not match their body's biological sex, they wish to undertake physical measures, with the aid of hormones and/or gender-confirming surgeries (sometimes referred to as "Sexual Reassignment Surgeries" SRS), to correct their alignment between body and mind. This term separates transsexual people from transgender people who do not need medical intervention to feel whole.
FTM and MTF
Female-to-male (FTM) transgender people are born with female biology but know themselves to be male and wish to be perceived as such socially (including the use of male pronouns like "he" and "his"). Male-to-female (MTF) transgender people are born with male biology but know themselves to be female and wish to be perceived as such socially (including the use of female pronouns like "she" and "hers"). He wants to have female anatomy and be called by female pronouns.
Gender identity is an inner sense of being female, male, neither, or both. By the age of 3, children often clearly understand either being male or female. Most of the time, their identity conforms to their biological sex. Whether this is the case or the child is transgender, society instills rules about one should conform to their birth sex.
Gender expression is the presentation of self to others as masculine, feminine, both, or neither. Some of the expression's aspects include mannerisms or movement, dressing and grooming, and possibly certain behaviors or interests. Unfortunately, children whose gender expressions do not meet society's expectations are usually mistreated. Children learn quickly how to try to fit in. However, gender nonconforming (GNC) children will likely continue to act and behave according to their interests despite these attempts and the consequences of running counter to their expectations.
Sexual orientation is about romantic and sexual attraction; it is not a choice. Attraction lies on a broad spectrum. A person can be attracted to just women, or just men, or both—and these can shift over a lifetime. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender identity or gender expression. Orientation is about finding others attractive, while gender identity and expression are about how one perceives and manifests oneself. Everyone has both sexual orientation and gender identity.
Genderfluid or Genderqueer
Genderfluid or genderqueer people internally understand their gender identity as falling outside the binary construct of "male" and "female." They may feel, and perhaps struggle to convey to others, that their gender is a mix of both, varies from day to day, is neither or beyond, or something else entirely. They may request that others refer to them with gender-neutral pronouns such as "they."
Pansexual people may be sexually attracted to individuals who identify as male or female; however, they may also be attracted to those who identify as intersex, third-gender, androgynous, transsexual, or the many other sexual and gender identities.
Cross-dressing people wear clothing traditionally worn by another gender. They may vary with how completely or often they cross-dress but are usually comfortable with their assigned biological sex and do not physically change it.
Seth Rainess is a sought-after TEDx and Keynote speaker and consultant who talks about the experience of being transgender to build understanding, compassion and create allies for young people and the adults in their lives. Seth is also the Best Selling Author of REAL TALK FOR TEENS: A Jump-start Guide to Gender Transitioning and Beyond.