When your child is born, they are assigned a gender. But that gender may not necessarily be the one they identify with as they grow up.
Gender identity is something that children begin to explore almost immediately. It can be seen in the types of clothing they like to wear, the activities they partake in, the way they behave or who they want to spend time with.
It’s very normal for young people to experiment with gender identity as they get older – wearing clothing or makeup not expected of their sex.
Gender dysphoria can occur when a child becomes distressed that the gender they identify with is different to the one they were assigned at birth.
It’s important to note: Not all gender diverse children have gender dysphoria. Some are very comfortable expressing their true gender identity but it can become a problem if they experience bullying or discrimination in school or other public settings.
When they decide to open up to you…
If your child tells you that they are transgender, take a few seconds before reacting. Let their words sink in and observe their face and body language.
Is their foot tapping? Have they wrapped their arms around themselves? Do they look fearful of your reaction?
What you say next could have a massive impact on their self-esteem. Here are some tips that will help this time in your life go as smoothly as possible:
1. Acknowledge their courage
Coming out can be one of the most daunting and terrifying moments of a person’s life so take a moment to acknowledge the courage they’ve shown in taking you into their trust.
While you’re entitled to space and time to process your own reaction, the first thing you should do is thank them for telling you and reassure them that you love them and are here whenever they need you.
2. Be curious, not judgemental
If your initial reaction to their coming out is disbelief or devastation, try to keep it from your child.
Instead of judging what they’ve told you, ask them questions. For example, ‘When did you first start feeling like this?’, ‘What does it mean to you to be transgender/non-binary/etc.?’, ‘What pronouns would you like us to use?’, ‘How can we help you feel like your most authentic self?’
3. Get professional help if required
If you are blindsided by what your child has told you and don’t feel emotionally equipped to handle a revelation of this scale, it’s okay. Let them know that you’re glad they told you but that you need help coming to terms with it.
Reassure them that they haven’t done the wrong thing in opening up but that you’d like to talk to a therapist, doctor or family counsellor (alongside them) to figure out the next steps together.
4. Broaden your knowledge of LGBTQ+ terminology
You’re not expected to know everything right away. However, if you’re feeling nervous about getting things wrong or don’t fully understand where your child is coming from, don’t live in ignorance.
5. Do the research with them
If your child is expressing a desire to have hormone treatment or one day, surgery, it is vital that you know the score. While your initial reaction might be to bury your head in the sand, this could damage your relationship and will only increase your anxiety if they decide to go ahead with treatment without your support.
Research the matter with them and make sure they are 100% aware of the risks and side effects involved in any hormonal or surgical treatment. If they know you are with them every step of the way, they may be more inclined to listen to your advice and weigh up the decision with a calm and clear mind, rather than one mired in guilt or turmoil.
6. Find parent support groups
As much as you may want to be ‘woke’ or ‘cool’ about what your child is telling you, it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. Shock, grief, confusion, disbelief and anger are common emotions among many parents of transgender children.
The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. Trans visibility has never been higher and, if you look for it, you will find support and other parents who will identify strongly with what you’re going through.
Being kind to yourself will make it easier to be kind to your child and the rest of your family.