Parenting Your Transgender Teen: What You Need to Know
Coming to terms with a child’s disclosure that they are transgender can be a struggle for any family.
This can be especially true if this disclosure comes when the child is a teenager or young adult. Though many transgender individuals recognize that they are different from an early age, studies have indicated that many do not come out until they are adolescents. This revelation can radically challenge family narratives and beliefs, emphasize existing structural problems and test individual and family resilience. In other words, as a parent or guardian, it can leave you feeling helpless and confused.
Coming to terms with a child’s disclosure that they are transgender can be a struggle for any family. This can be especially true if this disclosure comes when the child is a teenager or young adult. Though many transgender individuals recognize that they are different from an early age, studies have indicated that many do not come out until they are adolescents. This revelation can radically challenge family narratives and beliefs, emphasize existing structural problems and test individual and family resilience. In other words, as a parent or guardian, it can leave you feeling helpless and confused.
According the Williams Report over 150,000 American teens between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender. Developing and integrating a positive identity is a task taken on by all adolescents. This task is even more difficult for transgender youth as they struggle to reconcile their gender identity with cultural expectations associated with their biological sex. Their journey is often difficult and many transgender teens experience acute depression, social anxiety and suicidal ideation. Statistics show that 41% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide at least once. Finding a good gender therapist for your teen can make a huge difference.
The good news is that studies have also shown that family support directly and positively affects the mental well being of the gender variant child. Your support is critical to the well being of your child.
What Can I Do to Best Support My Child?
The first thing to do is breath. This can be a challenging situation not only for your child but for your whole family, as existing family stories, beliefs, structures and expectations are deconstructed. What you thought was true has shifted and it may take some time to wrap your head around it. During this time of processing, your family as a whole; parents, siblings and extended family will most likely go through several stages of understanding, both individually and collectively.
These stages are:
- Reaction: Reactions might include initial feelings of disbelief and shame that can shift into denial or bargaining. Some families experience anger or a deep sense of grief. Others might just feel confusion and helplessness. Conflict might also come up when one family member is supportive and another is not. “Is this a phase”, “Is this normal” and “Was it something I did wrong” are some of the questions I hear when I meet with parents of transgender children. These are all normal reactions and you are certainly not alone if you have had these thoughts or feelings. It is important to remember that there is nothing to “fix”. Your child most likely just needs you to hear them. It is also important to remember that you may also need to be heard and seeking out support through therapy or with friends and family is vital.
- Recovery: During this stage there is a refocusing on the core family beliefs of love, safety, understanding and support. In other words, after the initial emotional reactions have processed through, parents often find their way back to the deep love they have for their child. Parents and care givers will start to educate themselves about what their child is experiencing and the best way to support them. You might start to explore outside support through therapy, local support groups and via the internet. The Recovery Stage is about processing through the emotion, communicating with each other and rooting back down into your core family values and recognizing that you are still a parent whose responsibilities include providing understanding, love, support and safety for your child. As a parent this might be the stage in which you will need to do a lot of inner work. You will also be asked to step up as a parent. Just as your child is working to show up authentically in their life you need to stay as authentic as possible. Loving your child does not mean letting go of all family rules and expectations.
- Renewal: This stage includes the emotional support/acceptance of the transitioning child, the rewriting of the family narrative and the opportunity for personal growth of all family members and hope for the future. Acceptance usually means allowing your child to live as their authentic self inside and outside of the home. This includes the consistent use of their new gender pronouns, chosen name and advocating at school or with extended family members. I have found the more acceptance there is, the easier it is to do these things. Rewriting the family narrative often includes the family uniting against the external social narrative that says that there is something wrong with an individual who identifies as transgender. Understanding that your child’s gender identification is not the problem. The true problem is the social stigma placed on being transgender. Reinforcing your new family narrative can be achieved by finding supportive groups, taking social action, speaking openly and sharing common experiences with others. When this happens family members become allies and advocates. This can be pretty empowering and often deepens the bond between the transitioning child and their family members.
By this point you have done a lot of inner processing and you are clear about your core family and parenting values. Family members have had a chance to express and communicate their feelings and the family has started to create normalcy and inclusion around the child who is transitioning, otherwise known as rewriting the family story. Personal growth for all family members is often an outcome of this experience.
Parenting any teenager is challenging.
Parenting your transgender teen might challenge you in different ways and might be uncomfortable at times. Ultimately these challenges can be seen as a chance to grow as a parent and as a person. As you go through this process remember to take care of yourself, seek out support through therapy, friends and family and breath, breath breath!