We hear stories these days about parents who, when their child came out as transgender, just seemed to say “cool.” Looking back even just a decade, parents today seem more likely to respond quickly and positively to their children coming out. I doubt, though, that any parent skips past the emotional landmines that pop up when a child shares this news with them. What if your child comes out to you, and you don’t know what to do? What if your religious tradition frowns on gay or transgender people? How do you start this journey?
No, seriously. Sit down. Lie down if you need to. This is the universal signal for your body and brain to stop what they’re doing.
2. Get It Out.
After you have taken a few minutes to breathe, find someone you trust to listen to you without judgement. That might be your best friend, a family member, a counselor, or someone you find on a trusted website like PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians, Gays, and Transgender People).
You need to talk to someone who will be able to listen to your real and immediate thoughts and feelings about your child’s coming out. This should be someone who will listen compassionately to your thoughts and fears and questions.
This person also needs to be someone who doesn’t have a stake in the outcome of any decisions made. Some family members may pressure you to make a decision in a way they feel is right, whether that’s someone who thinks that transitioning is against God’s will, or someone who thinks you’re not accepting enough. Find someone who can listen to you, because your feelings need to be acknowledged as well. If you feel understood, it will help you understand your child. You can’t give away what you don’t have.
Read, read, read, and then read some more. That’s why God made Google. There is so much information out there about trans people’s lives and how to be supportive of them. We no longer have the excuse of not having enough information.
Conversely, you may even have the problem of finding too much information, some of it from questionable sources. Always check the credentials of the author or the organization who published the article. Look for articles and books written by trans people or by parents of trans people. Look for articles from sources like PFLAG National, National Center for Transgender Equality, or the Human Rights Campaign. Don’t forget that My Kid Is Gay has a whole section dedicated to gender that is full of advice and helpful resources on parenting a trans child, and pick up a copy of This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids, which has a whole chapter entirely dedicated to gender and trans identities.
Reading someone else’s story gives you insight, not a blueprint. Assume nothing. Be open.
There may be some similarities between your child and the stories you have read, but every trans person’s (just like every person, period) journey to being happy and healthy will be different. For example, some older children may need help navigating relationships with family members or someone they are attracted to, while younger children may need help feeling okay playing with the toys they like in front of other children. Your child may need your help getting their teachers to call them by the correct name. Listen to your child, and they will guide you to the best way to support them. Do they want you to become a super-advocate, giving speeches and marching in parades? Or do they want you at home, in the background, so they can settle in and just enjoy being the gender they know they were supposed to be? If you haven’t already, ask your child what name and pronouns they would like you to use for them—here are some tips to help you get used to this change.
One more thing to listen for: any kind of bullying. Ask questions gently, and listen to what they say. See if they seem scared to go to school, or act like they feel beaten down. Don’t be surprised if it isn’t always a student; it may be a teacher or an administrator. It may be someone at a coffee shop or a bus stop, or someone inside or outside of your family.
This is the time when you sit down with your sweet kid, and tell them how much you love them. Say it until they dive under the Afghan on the sofa to get away from the sound of your voice. Hug them until they use the excuse of doing their homework just to get away from you.
This conversation is most emphatically NOT about hesitations that you feel about their transitioning, or worries about how they’ll be accepted outside your home. This is not the time for any sentiment that starts with the words “I still love you, but…” or “God loves everyone, but…” or “Oh honey, we hate the sin, but we are all sinners…” NONE OF THAT. When you find your person—the one from step 2 who will listen to you without judgement—you say this to them. Or you do an interpretive dance, whatever. If you can’t find a human being to talk to, you write it down in a book that only you can find, and that you consider burning later.
There will be plenty of time to talk to your trans child about religion, when they’re a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted adult. Right now, anything you tell your child that indicates that God or the Universe isn’t one hundred percent happy with who they are can come across as critical, no matter how nicely you put it. Children have a unique way of figuring out how everything is their fault, so anything critical right now will make them more likely to shut down. That is dangerous. Loving them and accepting them as they are gives them a template to compare everyone else’s love against. It shows them what love is supposed to be like, and how others should treat them.
Find your child and yourself some support.
First, find an affirming mental health professional for the child who came out to you. Run far, far away from any health professional or group who promises they can help make your child not be trans. This is not the time to help your child “change.” This is the time your child needs someone in the mental health profession to help them understand their own feelings. No matter how confident they sound, kids may need help dealing with their own feelings of fear and shame. They may be scared they will hurt and embarrass you, or that they will lose their family over transitioning. So, first things first, get them someone who can hear them.
Second, find yourself an affirming mental health professional who you can speak to. Maybe this is the first person you found, maybe not. In general, this person or group should have your best interest at heart and be able to listen to and help you separate your own feelings of embarrassment and insecurity—feelings that we may have had from our own childhoods—from whatever we feel toward our child.
When a child comes out, it impacts the whole family. If you can find and afford family counseling, take it. Find a group of people who make you feel comfortable. This should be a group of people who share your experience and who you enjoy getting together with. It may take a few tries, but again, they’re out there. PFLAG National is a great resource to help you find parental support groups in your area. This has a way of making you feel less alone, and of seeing light at the end of this tunnel.
If you live in a rural area and can’t get to a group physically, consider following some Facebook pages like PFLAG National and My Kid Is Gay. As always, make sure you check their credentials. Most parent groups of this nature are closed, meaning you can request to join, but that you’ll have to be approved by an administrator. That’s good, because it means they’re trying to keep out trolls and give you a safe space to talk to other parents.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather some initial guidance meant to enhance your mental health and to take care of your feelings. In the long run, helping the family of someone transitioning makes everything better for your trans child, your other children, your partner, and yourself. It sets the tone for the rest of your family and friends, so they can see how to help.
An old saying attributed to Dr. Phil is that you teach people how to treat you. When you show your extended family and friends that you love your child, and that you are willing to support them, it will let them know how you expect them to treat your child, your family, and yourself.
Karen Thompson currently serves on the board of Lucie’s Place, an organization dealing with LGBT youth homelessness in Arkansas. She works in loving memory of her daughter, a force of nature, Lucille Marie Hamilton—the one who taught her everything (1988-2009).