Back to school season always brings up the subject of kids coming out. Transgender and gender-variant kids will often decide to transition at the start of a new year. While everyone’s experience is uniquely their own, the journey typically starts with a child’s coming out to one or both parents.
Here’s the thing: coming out means that this child has to dispel any assumptions you’ve already constructed. That’s big.
Even in the most affirming and supportive home, there is still a risk of the unknown. The ‘unknown’ is how severe your response will be, in learning that you were wrong. Wrong is a strong word; in most cases, it’s closer to slightly misaligned. Sometimes parents already have an inkling about their kid’s identity. The sticking point is that the child doesn’t know that and is taking a significant risk with their primary caregiver.
Let’s take a step back. Parents have years of muscle memory developed around “correcting” their kids. Don’t touch the stove, put your shoes on, cats don’t fly….it becomes a fast-track response.
This comes after spending years as an expert of their child’s experience. You’ve been a continuous proxy when kiddo was pre-verbal; speaking on their behalf to care providers, family members, the general public, etc. This has been your role since before they were born.
The challenge is when this “correcting’’ swerves over into contradicting them. Especially when that contradiction undermines the ownership of their innate sense of self. “Cats don’t fly” – perfectly reasonable. “You’re not a girl” – that’s redirection, and it’s damaging. You’re telling the child, on no uncertain terms, that they are wrong about an extremely personal aspect of their identities.
It’s common for kids to have an awareness of their gender early in childhood. Contradicting them takes away a critical element of agency; removing ownership of their own lived experience. As the inhabitors of their skin, these kids have a keen awareness of who they are inside. Remember, they aren’t looking for an exhaustive history of gender and biology.
Kids are asserting an innate sense of self. Try not to overcomplicate things just to make them fit into your understanding of the world.
Your goal in all of this includes two things: enthusiastically supporting kiddo and joining them on the journey. They may not be ready to come out to everyone. Depending on the level of support and safety, kids can decide to be out in only a few areas of their lives. A child might be out at home, but not yet ready for school or extended family. Listen to them, ask what they need, and let them set the pace.
A few points to consider along the way:
1) Take them somewhere as themselves. If the kiddo is not out in the community, consider an afternoon out of town. Go see a movie or visit a museum with the child presenting as their gender identity. Being able to express and exist as one’s own gender is extremely freeing. Giving the child space to be more visibly themselves contributes to their integrated sense of self and builds resiliency.
2) Encourage them to play and explore. Adults tend to apply gender everywhere – clothes, hair, mannerisms, activities, toys, etc. Open up the options and let them explore. Removing the social limitations of ‘boys can/girls can’ is also extremely liberating.
3) Not everything needs to be decided right now. If your child comes out as non-binary and wants to switch between pronouns, honor it. If they have a different relationship with gender later in life, honor that as well.
4) Realize that most of your perception of gender is based on early messages and social structures. Take time to evaluate your responses and feelings. Educate yourself and acknowledge that you are also going through a process.
5) Develop support strategies and practice them. People who are either uninformed or prejudiced will eventually come into view. Having a plan and coping tactics in advance is extremely helpful.
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