During the days leading up to your child’s arrival, you may have spent time thinking about what they would be like. It’s common to daydream about which family member they would resemble, or the mannerisms inherited—sometimes down to the details of their future pursuits and aspirations.
I had a mental image of my kiddo in those last months. He would be left handed like me, taller, and share my affinity for scary movies. Instead of the dark-haired, curly-headed child I’d pictured, an adorable blond baby with bright blue eyes arrived—looking more like my sister than anyone else. He does have my weird toe though. Yay, genetics!
Parents can develop elaborate constructs around their child’s future—right up until the moment of delivery. Once that tiny human emerges, they become themselves.
Parents prepare for everything as the child grows and matures. They child-proof the house, have emergency plans, talk through sick-day contingencies during the school year, and keep a few steps ahead on difficult conversations. Things like first exposure to death, divorce, heartbreak, questions about sex—all need to be thought through and ready to address.
What most people don’t adequately prepare for is the conversation immediately following their child’s coming out as transgender. Considering that your response in the first 3-5 seconds will have the most lasting impact on the kiddo’s future well-being, it’s definitely worth practicing this one in advance.
First, take a step back and rethink those pre-birth assumptions about your child. Remember that mental image of the future baby you created based on the ultrasound image? That is a construct. This developing person in front of you, taking the courageous step of coming out, they are your child.
Once you’ve taken a second to process (remember, the first 3-5 are most critical), thank them for trusting you enough and sharing. Acknowledge how difficult disclosing can be. Reassure them. Ask how you can best support them. Then listen.
The question always comes back to—How do I keep them safe? It’s a tricky one, because there are so many elements. Physically safe in school and walking through the world? Emotionally safe when they invariably encounter harassment or bullying? Safe as they navigate a healthcare system that isn’t always informed and affirming of transgender humans? Yes. Yes to all of these, and the myriad alternatives that come with being gender variant in a binary culture.
Here are 6 ways to become a supportive and affirming parent for your transgender child:
1. “What” and “should” begin to dominate the conversation. Don’t let them. As parents, a typical response is to immediately cascade out all the possible implications. What about school, summer camp, and Aunt Brenda? What about new clothes and pronouns? Stop and take a breath. All of these questions, while valid, can be answered later.
2. Keep focus and stay present in the moment. Start with your child’s immediate needs. Do they feel supported? Do they have questions or thoughts about their experience to share? Kids have a tendency to take responsibility for instability in the environment. Wondering aloud how to manage the next family reunion is not something they need right now.
3. Take time out to evaluate your feelings and personal response to the situation. It’s important to understand how much your reaction influences this child’s perception of themselves. They will likely internalize the perceptions you reflect back.
4. Educate yourself and find a supportive network. One of the most influential aspects in healthy development for transgender and gender-variant kids is having an actively affirming, supportive environment. There are far more resources available on parenting transgender kiddos then even a few years ago. Organizations such as PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) have a wealth resources and information.
5. Talk to them about physical, emotional, and sexual health from a perspective of empowerment. Yes, people could try to exploit or bullying them because of a gender identity. But it’s important to keep their power and sense-of-self intact. Confidence and self-worth go a long way in navigating the world safely.
6. Watch for any changes in behavior. Kids can be “out” in some aspects of their lives, but not all. If you suspect bullying, depression, or something doesn’t seem quite right—ask. Keep the lines of communication open.
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