As a counselor in a small town, I've seen first hand the difficulties many of my clients face when it comes to seeking help for issues related to being apart of the LGBTQ (lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Oueer/Questioning) community, or when they have friends or family of the LGBTQ community. Sometimes, those who experience the most difficulty in this area are parents of children who've come out as transgender.
Often as the third party bystander in this situation involving parent and child I see multiple perspectives:
First, I see the parental view sometimes involving shock, emotional processing, questions about validity of their child's feelings, and determining how this information will now fit into the every day family dynamic.
Secondly, I see the view point of the transgender child, where he/she/they have hidden their identity for many years, and/or have recently found a term to put meaning to the way they feel inside. I also often see fear and hesitation in the child who is finally willing to confront their parent(s) or guardian(s) about their gender identity, and the uncertainty of not knowing if open arms of acceptance will be on the receiving end of this news.
Both situations are equally difficult to traverse in their own way. After witnessing the varied reactions of many different parents (both positive and negative), I've compiled a list of effective tools for parents to pull from when their child comes out as transgender.
Give Yourself Time to Process the Information
For a lot of parents, the news of your child identifying as trans can be a shock to the system! A lot of different emotions may also come to the surface: fear for their current and future safety, confusion about when this happened, questions about whether this is a passing phase, sadness about sudden changes in your expectations for your child. Whether this is something you believe you are on board with or not, give yourself the emotional space to thoroughly and completely think through how you feel. Often what happens during the coming out phase for any parent of LGBTQ youth is the potential for grief.
Most of us don't associate grief with the idea of 'coming out' whether it be sexual orientation or gender identity, however for many parents the expectations of how your child could live out their life, socially, with future romantic partners, and ideas of family may have been disrupted. So give yourself time to grieve the idea that your child may no longer express the desire to be married, have children, or even if they desire those things, that the make-up of this idea could look different. Be sure to share your feelings with your child too in a constructive way that will strength communication on both ends. Don't isolate, blame, or project your feelings onto your child. Listen and learn from them, and express how you feel in a way that builds them up and builds you up.
For a lot of parents that I've encountered in my work, the concept of being transgender or 'trans' is completely foreign to their vocabulary. There are also sometimes preconceived notions that parents have encountered in the media that can dominate perceptions of what being transgender means for their child and everyone else. An easy resource to start with when seeking education is your child! What do they know about being transgender and how do they perceive their own identity? Being transgender is not a one size fits all term. For some this means changes in preference of name and gender pronouns, for others its physical appearance and/or name change, and gender pronouns! Most children or teens will have already researched on their own what their gender identity means and how they want it to look. For youth who have not but have questions about their gender identity, seeking help from a gender therapist or LGBTQ friendly counselor could help greatly.
For parents, resources such as GLAAD.org and WebMD are quick overview guides of what it means to be transgender and how people under the gender umbrella identify. If you are feeling alone as a parent because you do not know or do not have connections to other ally or LGBTQ families, find out if there are local support groups in your town for you and your child. A good way to search for these groups can be through Facebook, MeetUp.com, Google groups, or through simply Google searches. If there are no local support groups in your area, finding an LGBTQ friendly counselor or gender therapist will be your next best step to get connected to resources.
Try out the Changes
With transgender identity comes many different changes. For many who identify as trans, changes in preferred names and pronouns will occur. For those identifying as FTM (biological female to male), the preference for a more masculine or a gender neutral name may be more suitable. Similarly, for individuals identifying as MTF (biological male to female), a more feminine name or gender neutral name might be what they are looking for. It may be hard for many parents to accept a new name for your child, but simply putting forth effort to use the name your child has picked for themselves for their new identity can make a whole world of difference to them. Gender pronouns are also hard for many parents to grasp. You've spent the entire existence of your child's life calling them by 'she, her, hers' or him, his, he' that the idea of calling them an opposite gender pronoun is like speaking a foreign language. Be patient with yourself during this time. Expect to slip up and occasionally forget. It's ok. Simply letting your child know that you are willing to try and make changes to accommodate their needs can alleviate many symptoms of their depression and anxiety, and increase feelings of self esteem in your child.
Rates of suicide are estimated to be between 30-40% for LGBTQ youth, and symptoms of depression, and anxiety are also higher in children and teens who identify in the LGBTQ community. A lot of transgender children are already bullied at school or online for their gender identity, and many who are not accepted at home either face an increased risk for self esteem issues, suicide attempts, and depression. As a lot of existing literature on social behavior, treatment of others, and bullying already states, practice of how to treat others and yourself starts in the home. To help your child with their transition process, be the example of change in their life.
What are Hormone Blockers, HRT, Top/Bottom Surgery? Do I Consider this or Not, and if so When?
Many youth and adults who identify as transgender not only desire a change in name and pronoun preference, but a physical change in appearance as well. This leads into the topic of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and surgical options. For many adults identifying as trans, hormone replacement therapy and/or top and bottom surgery (top: breast augmentation surgery or breast implants, bottom: genital reconstructive surgery) are further pursuits to reflect more of who they are on an physical level. For FTM this may include seeking testosterone treatment and for MTF estrogen. For most teens who are trans, hormone blockers or puberty inhibitors are often prescribed by qualified physicians or endocrinologists to suppress the further development of puberty. For many trans teens, the idea of growing into a body that they already feel does not belong to them, adds to feelings of dysphoria (a state of unease on an emotional and psychological level about one's gender identity) and could increase feelings of depression. For parents, the idea of messing with your child's body chemistry could be terrifying, especially when considering side effects. Depending on where you live, could also depends on what age your child is able to medically consent to their own treatment for HRT, surgery, or mental health.
Be aware that even if you are not fully on board with your child's decision to pursue hormonal or physical changes with their body, they may still move forward on their own to do so if they are of age to consent in their city and state. For trans children or teens who are too young to legally make this decision, it ultimately comes down to you as the parent. To better inform yourself on whether to begin hormonal changes or surgery, do your research! For some states, informed consent is necessary from a mental health clinician before anyone can pursue hormones or surgery, so contacting a counselor versed in these issues can be your starting point. Another resource could be any local online or print listings of LGBTQ friendly physicians, endocrinologists, or reconstructive surgeons who can get you information on how your child can get started on hormones or surgery and what may be the best options for your child. Starting or not starting your child on blockers, hormones or pursuing surgical options is personal to each family. These are not decisions often made lightly by parents, but tread carefully on any final decision making. Often parents who are afraid of their trans teen transitioning further might decide to say no to hormones or surgery. If this is the case, try and work with your child on being open in other areas, such as with clothing preference, using their chosen name and pronouns, etc. If you believe that you can prevent your child from ever pursuing hormonal or surgical options think again! Once your child reaches the legal age of consent, it is ultimately up to them to decide what they want to do with their mind and body!
Although these are only a few of the many topics that parents may have questions about, I hope these provide you better tools in navigating life with your trans youth. The ultimately takeaway is to love your child for who they are, as that is what they are looking for from you as their parent or guardian.
Devin Pinkston is a local mental health counselor and Gender Therapist in Grand Junction Colorado. Call to schedule a free consultation today at 970-644-2392.