Parenting brings with it challenges, quandaries, hilarity, and joy. Hopefully, joy wins out and the quandaries are manageable. Sometimes, however, our children present us with a situation for which we may have no preparation, no background, and which may leave us frightened, stunned, and scrambling for answers. Consider the five year old boy who spends every spare moment at home in full mermaid attire with a towel on his head to approximate long hair spilling down his back, or the anxious adolescent girl who showers in the dark (when she can tolerate the act of caring for her body) and suffers extreme panic and/or depression every time she menstruates, or the isolated teen who is beginning to understand that the deep discomfort they feel about their post-pubertal body and appearance is somehow connected to their experience of their gender. These are just a few possible examples of how some kids might experience gender dysphoria, the incongruence between how a person experiences and/or expresses their gender and the gender that was assigned to them at birth (baby emerges, doctor or midwife gives the baby a visual once-over and makes this defining pronouncement: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”). So what do we do when our child is exhibiting behavior that is not classically aligned with what we had heretofore believed their gender to be? What do we do when our child vehemently disavows their body or explicitly tells us that they are transgender?
The first thing to remember is to breathe.
Your mind might be swirling, your emotions might be skyrocketing, and your confusion may very well be off the charts. These are all expectable reactions, and you will be much better equipped to handle them if you can take care of yourself by breathing.
The second, and equally important, thing to remember is to listen to your child – really listen to them.
To the best of your ability, allow space and safety for them to share their experience with you. Allow them to be the primary expert on what they are feeling and how they are experiencing their body and their identity. Affirming our kids in their personal experiences is invaluable, and creates an environment wherein they feel secure sharing the vulnerable parts of themselves with us.
Next, educate yourself so that you can support your child.
The term “transgender” generally refers to a feeling of disconnection between one’s gender identity and the gender assigned at birth. For many people, there is congruence between their gender identity and the gender assigned to them at birth, and they never give a second thought to their maleness or femaleness; for others, however, the dysphoria that results from incongruence can prevent them from living an authentic life. As your child explores their gender expression and identity, you may find yourself challenged by the changes that occur. Parental feelings may include shock, fear, grief, anger, frustration, and disbelief. Some parents are hesitant to share their child’s gender exploration with others, while other parents find great relief in gaining insight into their child’s behavior or emotional state. There is no one way to react, and parents may find themselves experiencing a variety of emotions, all of which are valid. Remember that your feelings may change and evolve over time. If possible, seek support that allows you to process your feelings in a non-judgmental way. Online and in-person support groups and individual therapy are effective avenues for personal reflection, community building, and resource gathering. There is no doubt that this can be a vulnerable time for families, and kids may well need the love, support, and advocacy of their parents at this time more than ever before. The more that we can remember to breathe, learn, explore, and process our feelings, the better able we will be to show up for our kids.
Joelle Spiegel, JD, LSW is postgraduate fellow at Live Oak and co-facilitates the TransParenting group with Nancy Tartt, AMFT.
TransParenting is a psychoeducational support group for parents of transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive kids and young adults that is held on Thursday evenings at our Downtown Office.