Someone once told me the first 50 years of parenting are the hardest. I only have 10 years under my parenting belt, but I can confirm that all of them have been hard. But they have also been beautiful and like nothing I could ever have imagined. Part of being a parent is finding ways to roll with our children’s unexpected moods, behaviors, and changes. We can set boundaries and expectations, but we can’t control our kids—no matter how many rewards, threats, or punishments we enact. Kids are their own people with personalities, dreams, and a sense of who they are. They’re going to act and feel with autonomy.
Of all of the surprises I have experienced as a parent, loving my transgender daughter through her transition was the easiest and most rewarding. The number one goal as a parent is keeping your child safe and happy. If you have a child who is transgender or questioning their gender identity, that is still the goal. Supporting our transgender youth is not without mistakes and fear, but it’s our most important job.
Listen and Follow Their Lead
When your child tells you they are not the gender they were assigned at birth or are questioning that assignment, it’s really important to listen without judgment. Even if you have a knee-jerk reaction to resist what they’re saying, check yourself. Resist the urge to flood them with questions or rationalizations. Thank your child for trusting you with their thoughts and feelings. Let them know you love them and, while you may not have all of the answers, you will learn. Tell them you will do everything necessary to support them.
Your child may not have all of the answers yet either, and that’s okay too. The way to know if your child is transgender is if they are persistent, insistent, and consistent about a gender identity that is different from the one they were assigned at birth. It may take some time to put a label on that identity, but if your child is telling you something isn’t right, then it’s critical that you have the patience to follow their lead and help them explore who they are. Gender diverse books are a great way to do this. If your child wants to talk with other youth who are transgender or questioning, see if there are local or online groups for your child to join.
Being a kid is tough sometimes. Being a transgender kid can be really tough. It takes a lot of courage to walk into school or a family gathering as your true self. This is especially true when people only want to see who they thought you were. Bullying, harassment, and an overwhelming number of anti-transgender laws harm the security and well-being of transgender youth. The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health shows that transgender and nonbinary youth are at a much higher risk of depression, self-harm, and suicide. But, when the people they live with respect their pronouns, the number of suicide attempts decreased by half compared to kids who were not supported. The number of suicide attempts were also lower for the transgender and nonbinary kids who were able to update legal documents like driver’s licenses and birth certificates with their correct name and gender.
Your child’s mental health needs to be your top priority. Check in with them to see if they want to talk to you or someone else about depression, anxiety, or other troubling thoughts they may be having. Your child may feel more comfortable confiding in someone who isn’t you and that’s okay. The most important piece is that your child has a safe place to talk so that they can get the help they need.
Get Support from Other Parents of Transgender Youth
Your child’s gender identity is not about you. Yes, so much of who you are revolves around your relationship with your child. But changing the names, pronouns, and language you use to refer to your child are acts of love for them. It’s not about taking away from your experience as a parent. You will need to make adjustments, and you may mourn the loss of what you thought you had. But it was never really there to begin with. What you are clinging to are incorrect assumptions. Your child is still the same child you’ve always loved, and your ability to keep their needs in focus rather than your own will be critical in building your child’s confidence, happiness, and trust.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore your own needs. Reach out to other parents of transgender kids so you have a place to ask questions and process what you may be feeling. A therapist or family doctor can help too. It’s okay to reflect and express your confusion or worry about your child’s transition, as long as you do it away from your child. They are not responsible for your emotions or your ability to understand. You are responsible for keeping your child’s needs centered while getting support for yours somewhere outside of your child’s bubble.
You may want to ask your child a million questions about their gender identity so that you can understand what they are going through. Sometimes this is done out of denial, guilt, or confusion. You may also confuse gender with sexual orientation and ask unnecessary questions about sexuality. Trying to get your child to tell you why or how they know they are transgender is like asking you (a cisgender person) to prove or explain how you know your gender. And demanding to know who they are attracted to likely isn’t relevant here either. There are a lot of great books, documentaries, and online resources that can help you understand what it means to be transgender and why it’s so important to respect pronouns and name changes.
Find out what policies exist in your child’s school to be sure their rights and safety are protected. Dig into your state’s rules about changing legal documents to be sure your child’s correct gender and name can be updated when it’s time.
You will also want to work with affirming pediatricians and therapists who can explain any medical transitions your child may want or need. Hormone blockers and/or hormone therapy may be part of your child’s transition. And when your child is older—late teens and into adulthood—gender affirming surgery may be necessary too.
The more you can learn now, the better you can prepare for the different ways your child may choose to transition. You will also get to know your child and their experience better without putting them through the emotional labor of doing this work for you.
As you work to affirm and support your child, you are going to make mistakes. You will need to apologize. But keep trying! When you practice using new pronouns or a new name, you are showing your child how much you love them. It’s not okay to make excuses or continue to misgender your child, but if they see you practicing and making an effort to get it right in front of them and around other people, they will likely cut you some slack and thank you for being awesome.
Be Their Ally and Advocate for Transgender Youth
You’re going to have to get comfortable with confrontation. Whether you are correcting strangers or acquaintances when they misgender your child, setting boundaries with family members, demanding an inclusive school district, or fighting against anti-transgender laws, you will get into arguments on behalf of your transgender child. It is critical that transgender youth see the adults in their life going to battle for them. They need to know they aren’t alone. This may mean you have to cut ties with friends or family members in order for your child to feel safe and protected. When you create a zero-tolerance policy for bigotry and disrespect, you greatly increase not just your child’s chance of survival, but their ability to thrive. Transgender youth who are supported in their gender identity and transition have developmentally equivalent levels of depression to cisgender peers and minimal elevations of anxiety.
Parenting isn’t easy. Trust me: having a transgender child is far from the hardest thing you will ever encounter as a parent. Yes, you may encounter uneducated and transphobic people who may make your life more challenging. But raising a transgender or nonbinary child will be the best gift you never expected.
Amber Leventry is a queer, nonbinary writer and advocate. They live in Vermont and have three kids, including twins and a transgender daughter. Amber uses their words to influence and educate people on the importance of supporting the LGBTQIA+ community. They provide LGBTQIA+ inclusivity training online and in person. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram or at their Facebook page Family Rhetoric by Amber Leventry.