I have been around other parents of transgender children just like myself for over six years—from peer-led support groups to coaching clients and consulting with organizations. I made these mistakes. I am by no means pointing fingers. And I have seen how these mistakes hurt youth when their closest ally unknowingly messes up.
Read this list with a gentle heart and if you feel frustrated, ashamed, or a desire to defend arises, sit with that feeling for a minute and ask yourself what it’s trying to tell you. This isn’t a list to point out what we do wrong; it’s meant to show how we can help our uniquely wonderful kids.
1. Conflating sexual orientation with gender identity
Sexual orientation refers to a person’s emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to other people. Examples of sexual orientations include gay, straight, bisexual, and asexual. Gender identity, on the other hand, refers to a person’s sense of their own gender, which may or may not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. Some examples of gender identity include man, woman, non-binary, and transgender.
One of the most frequent misunderstandings I hear from parents, and strangers, is the assumption that gender identity is sexual—probably because many of us were raised to use sex and gender as synonyms. Gender develops and is understood by preschool and has nothing to do with who a person loves.
2. Gatekeeping their child’s transness
I refer to gatekeeping as an exercise in raising the bar for “how trans” a person needs to be in order to be affirmed, or access gender supports. In other words, saying, “my child showed no signs before they came out. Therefore, they’re not really trans,” or judging that your child is not overly masculine or overly feminine in their gender expression. Such as a trans boy choosing to wear nail polish or a trans girl interested in video games. Putting conditions on accepting your child harms their well-being and erodes your relationship.
Some parents may not believe their child is truly transgender because of the lack of information and education about transgender issues and identities. I suggest you learn about the vast and varied experiences and realities of transgender people instead of stereotypes and misconceptions.
3. Not getting their own support
Let me get straight to the point, raising a transgender youth today is a touchy subject, and we face stigma and judgment as parents. We fear for our child’s well-being and are not sure we’re doing the right thing every step of the way. This a difficult road, only made worse by walking it alone.
You need support. Seek out accurate information and up-to-date education and join support groups for parents of transgender children so you feel less alone on this journey. These groups can provide emotional support and practical advice for navigating the challenges of having a transgender child. Sometimes you are not in a place where you can face a whole group, so it may be helpful to seek support from a mentor coach such as myself for training or an LGBTQ+ friendly therapist. If you don’t know where to start to find a mental health professional who is open to the topic of raising a gender-diverse child, Choosing Therapy has a directory that allows you to filter your search for LGBTQIA related issues.
4. Continuing to deadname in the child’s absence
Deadnaming is when you refer to a transgender person by the name they were given at birth rather than the name they have chosen for themselves. This can be hurtful to a transgender person because it undermines their identity. Using a name that a transgender person no longer identifies with can also be a reminder of difficult experiences they may have had, such as harassment, discrimination, or abuse.
It is difficult for some parents to learn to use a new name and pronoun for their child when they’ve used the old name for years or decades. I know this all too well! The best way to learn to use the new name is to practice. Put the new name in your phone for texting, go to coffee with a trusted friend and use the new name on purpose. Don’t use the excuse of your child not being in the room to deadname them because you miss the opportunity to build on the new habit.
Every individual has the right to control their own narrative and share their own experiences in their own time and on their own terms, including minors. This is your child’s journey, and they are the drivers. You must always have permission from your child to share which details with whom.
Revealing private details about a transgender person’s journey without their consent can put them at risk for harassment, discrimination, and violence. It can also contribute to further misperceptions and stereotypes about the trans community and their experiences.
6. Moving too quickly
Not every trans person needs the same degree of social or medical affirmation. While some parents gatekeep their child and try to slow down any changes, other parents can be overzealous and create stress on their child who may want to transition more slowly. One reason that can be stressful is that some people may not feel comfortable transitioning in specific environments, such as at work or school, and may choose to do so later or in a different setting. In addition, some youth may want to test the waters, so to speak, by experimenting with other gender expressions or pronouns before committing to a full transition.
7. Avoiding their feelings
I started my book Beyond Pronouns: The Essential Guide for Parents of Trans Children, with parents addressing their feelings for several reasons. We always tend to put our children first, we tend to avoid talking about the hard parts, and we don’t want others to interpret our emotions to mean we aren’t supportive. Yet, how can we support our kids if we are numb or on autopilot?
Avoiding your feelings can cause strain on the parent-child relationship because of a breakdown in communication and trust. Avoiding guilt, confusion, and sadness can also impact your overall well-being. Tell me I’m not the only parent to stare at the ceiling with worry some nights! It’s okay to have mixed feelings and to take the time to process your emotions. Go back and reread point 3!
Raising transgender youth is a very rewarding experience. The sense of pride and joy and connection and authenticity is beyond measure. But there is a whole lot to learn and new skills to use. Do your best, and as Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, do better.”
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