Children and youth will learn their first messages about their identity and self-worth through the relationships they have with the adults they grow up around. The most helpful thing you can do to support your gender nonconforming youth is to remind them that you love them and accept them for who they are unconditionally. This will create a safe and secure relationship for both parents and children.
Worrying about what will happen to your trans/gender nonconforming youth and what others will think of you is a natural fear. However, the love and support youth receive from their parents will greatly improve their resilience when dealing with future hardships.
Gender Identity & Your Child
The first step in supporting your child is familiarizing yourself with the different terms associated with gender and sexual identity. Although this may be confusing at first, normalizing and respecting the pronouns and chosen name your child goes by, will aid their identity development and make them feel more confident in who they are. Supporting your gender expansive youth will require that you expand your definition and understanding of gender itself. Therefore, actively becoming a gender creative parent will help you to effectively raise a gender creative child.1
The basics begin with distinguishing between sexuality and gender identity. Gender identity is a complex combination of social, cultural, and biological factors that refers to a person’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a combination of both, or none at all.
Sex, also known as designated sex at birth, refers to the external sex organs, genitalia, and/or secondary sex characteristics used to discern a newborn is male, female, or intersex. Typically, gender is mapped out onto sex, but is not limited to the physical components of a newborn. In fact, designated sex at birth really does not say much about the gender identity of the child.
Transgender is an umbrella term that encompassess all individuals who identify with a gender that is different from their designated sex at birth. Gender nonconforming, gender variant, gender expansive, gender creative, and gender diverse are mostly interchangeable terms that describe youth who explore and express their gender along the spectrum that is different than the one they were assigned at birth and outside the male and female binary.
Trans youth and adults can identify with a gender that is opposite to the one they were assigned at birth, but they can also identify as a gender along the continuum of masculinity to femininity. The most important take away here is that a person’s designated sex at birth does not define a person’s gender and gender is not limited to a person’s biological aspects of sex. What makes a person their gender is how they feel about themselves and how they want others to see them as.
Someone may use the pronouns they/them if they are gender nonconforming or nonbinary, and the use of she/her or he/him doesn’t necessarily mean that the person identifies as a woman or man, respectively. Gender identity and pronouns may, and often do, change over time.
When we as parents place the focus on biological aspects of sex, through the use of gender norms, denying your youth’s pronouns, or shaming them, this undermines the diverse and nuanced spectrum of gender identity. Furthermore, it will hurt the relationship your child has with you in feeling safe and supported to determine their gender identity.
Finally, the last terms to familiarize yourself with are related to sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is often confused with gender identity, however, these two terms are actually different. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s sexual and/or romantic attraction to people of the same gender, different genders, both, or neither. It is common to see children who adopt gender nonconforming behaviors may later on identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual but it’s important to remember that these are two different aspect’s of their identity.
All people, including cisgender and transgender people, have both sexual orientation and gender identity, which means your trans child can identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or any other sexual identity. There are many types of sexuality and gender terms, so it helps to educate yourself on them.
How to Support Your Transgender Child or Teen
Like previously mentioned, raising a gender nonconforming child will require parents to challenge their understanding of gender, which means actively reshaping the cultural norms, beliefs, and attitudes you have inherited and are conditioned to use about gender to a more informed, flexible, and understanding stance.
When it comes to the relationship with your gender expansive youth, decentering your wishes, hopes, and dreams for your child to getting to know your child for the person they are and centering their own desires, will be central tasks of your parenting.1 This process is critical for all parents, but especially for those raising gender variant youth.
Challenging Your Beliefs on Gender
The first steps to support your gender nonconforming youth involve you determining which beliefs you already hold about gender along with the ones you may not be aware of. Positive or negative, take a moment to assess what are the messages you have heard or were implied to you about gender? How do those messages relate to the worries and fears you currently have?
Common parental concerns range from thinking their child is confused about their gender to fear that their child will experience some form of harassment if parents support their gender identity. Some parents may feel called to step up as advocates in support of their gender nonconforming child, to others feeling extreme discomfort with the ambiguity of the process. Where do you think you stand along the continuum of fears and concerns?
Increasing your self-understanding will help you better understand and support your relationship with your child. This process can be scary and unnerving, especially if you are not used to challenging norms throughout your life, and you may feel like you are putting yourself or your child in a vulnerable position. Please know these emotions are common to experience and a gender affirming counselor will be useful to help you make sense of all of these thoughts and concerns. But what we do know is that how a parent responds to their gender nonconforming youth greatly impacts their wellbeing.2
In spite of the discomfort, adopting a more inquisitive and compassionate stance reduces feelings of rejection, misunderstanding, and judgement in your child, which typically lead to LGBTQ+ youth feeling more depressed, anxious, and in worse cases suicidal. Family rejection also leads to poorer outcomes in school performance, career advancement, and poorer coping throughout the trans youth’s life.3
When trans and gender nonconforming youth are supported, embraced, and accepted by their families they go on to having greater quality of life as adults. The support from primary caregivers is considered a protective factor against bullying, stigma, and discrimination within the larger society and aids in the overall wellbeing of the trans youth.4
Challenging Your Adultism
Similarly to assessing your current beliefs on gender, it will be helpful to assess your decision-making resources as a parent. Typically, parents utilize a combination of personal beliefs, cultural norms, and common sense to make parenting decisions. However, parents of gender nonconfomring youth will find little guidance in these traditional routes.2 The restricted definitions of a gender binary do not capture the wide range of gender identities people can align with.
The fears parents have for their gender nonconforming child stem from traditions, perpetuated by myths and stereotypes, embedded in our culture regarding gender. However, these myths and stereotypes are dangerous and lead to negative messaging for all individuals, particularly trans and gender diverse people.5
One of the more challenging aspects for parents is confronting their adultism, or the power and control adults have in the lives of youth to behave, think, and believe in certain ways. For gender nonconforming youth, adultism refers to the ways in which families and caregivers try to control gender identity and expression through repression, denial, or rejection of the youth’s wishes and/or experiences.6 This restriction of gender is emotionally and physically damaging to trans individuals, particularly youth, and has been linked with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality.7
It is common to experience some conflict between you and your gender nonconforming child, as you begin to make sense of and understand their identity. As your child wishes to gain more autonomy in their self-expression, you will have to find a balance between supporting their authenticity with your parental urge,8 or the desire/fear you experience in wanting to keep your child safe. Learning more together can be the best path forward for challenging this adultism and bonding with your child.
Show Your Support With Words & Questions
Another way to show support to your child is by showing an interest in understanding their perspective and gender identity from their terms. Consider asking your child open-ended questions about what labels mean to them as well as what it feels like to be that specific gender identity. Your child may not yet know what pronouns they would like to go by or if they want to transition, but opening a dialogue with them where you begin to normalize and make space for these conversations will help reduce the anxiety and fear you both may be experiencing.
As you listen, observe any worries or intrusive thoughts that come up for you, especially if you feel the urge to interrupt your child and rebut what they are saying. Practicing mindfulness, or redirecting your focus to the present, will help you to stay in the moment with your child and truly listen to what they are experiencing. This will better help you understand what your next steps will be. As your child grows, and their desires or feelings begin to change, that may lead to different decisions regarding how they want to express their gender and live in their authentic truth.
Assemble a Care Team for Your Child
As you continue to develop your relationship with your child, you may consider exploring gender-affirming healthcare and helping professionals to support you and your child. Consider consulting with your pediatrician or a gender-affirming physician to determine other medical sources of support, like an endocrinologist. You can also ask them to direct you to a gender-affirming counselor in your area to help facilitate your child’s gender identity affirmation process.
A counselor can help you and your family to move towards a place of acceptance and support regarding your child’s gender as well as discuss any questions or concerns you may have about the process along the way. Read more about gender dysphoria to learn about what potential care might look like.
Some important questions to ask your providers include:
- What identity work have you done in terms of gender?
- How are you combatting transphobia in your own practice?
- How do they utilize the World Professional Health Organization for Trans Health (WPATH) Standards of Care in their practice?
Whether you are a parent of a trans youth or you identify as trans, the above questions will help you to gauge how knowledgeable your healthcare provider is on supporting the mental and medical aspects of trans individuals.
Follow Your Child’s Lead
Being a parent is a tough job. Parents are faced with the challenge of identifying and protecting their children from potential danger to embracing their child, allowing them to experience life fully. This fear is valid. And this fear is not always reflective of the larger living reality of life. In the case of being a parent of a gender variant child, balancing this fear with supporting your child’s authentic self will be a test of your own resilience. Some tips to following your child’s lead include making space for conversations where disciplining and expectations are not part of the discussion.
Acknowledging your child’s thoughts and emotions while also respecting their own boundaries will help your child to open up and feel safe to talk with you about difficult things. Consider how you can spend quality time just getting to know your child and reflect back what you hear them saying. All of these behaviors will support your relationship with your child and make you feel more secure in exploring and understanding your child’s gender.
Make Sure You Have Support, Too
Ensuring that you have support too, will help you navigate any stress through this process. For example, learning different coping skills and modeling how to regulate intense emotions during novel or uncomfortable experiences, will help to create a more predictable and safe environment for both of you. Setting your own boundaries of what you feel comfortable discussing with others as well as respecting your child’s wishes on how they’d like to come out to others. Keeping daily promises of self-care will also help build your resilience and wellness.
Consider receiving your own counseling to explore what this process is like for you and strategies to balance your own fears and concerns. Below is a list of resources you can look into for additional community support. Local organizations like PFLAG or your local LGBTQ+ center will offer support groups for youth and parents. This community support will also help you and your child to feel more confident and normalize what you are experiencing.
For Further Reading
The following are helpful additional resources for parents of trans children:
- Trans Youth Equality Foundation
- Human Rights Campaign
- It Gets Better
- The Trevor Project
- Gender Spectrum
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- The Brown Boi Project
- The Transgender Law Center
- To Parents Who Have a Transgender Child
- Unconditional Love – Journey with our Transgender Child
- Art Therapy for Children & Teens: How It Works, Examples, & Effectiveness
How to Support Your Trans or Gender Nonconforming Youth Infographics