“My child wants to change their name and their pronouns. What does this mean, and what if I want to still call them by the name I gave them?”
Question submitted Anonymously
Answered by Irwin Krieger, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
A child’s request for a name and pronoun change comes from a strong feeling that their current name and pronouns don’t reflect who they feel they are inside. Young children may express this spontaneously. Teens, on the other hand, generally speak up only after giving the matter a great deal of thought. Usually they have also researched transgender identities online.
Most parents find it difficult to accept that their child could be transgender. At birth, a doctor determined your child’s sex and you gave your child a name that you had chosen after months of deliberation. You raised them in accordance with the understanding that your child was clearly a boy or a girl, and of course you used the pronouns that fit. It can be upsetting to find out that the name you chose and the pronouns you are using don’t fit who your child knows they are inside.
Gender identity is a deeply felt sense of being male, female, neither, or a blend. For many of us, our gender identity is the same as the sex we were assigned at birth. But for transgender people, there is a gap between assigned sex and gender identity. If your child is asking you to use a different name and different pronouns, they have been feeling distressed about the discordance between who they are inside and who they are seen to be by others.
For many parents, it’s a shock to find out that your child identifies as transgender. Parents may fear that their child is mistaken in this belief. They may think their child is too young to know, whether that child is 7 or 17. They may worry that their child is choosing a life path of rejection and loneliness. All of these fears and concerns are understandable, especially if parents know little about transgender identity or don’t know anyone who is transgender. If this is the case, they may be unaware that transgender people are able to transition in accordance with the gender they feel they are inside and go on to live happy and productive lives. Learning more about transgender identities will help you understand your child’s experiences more fully.
When your child asks you to use a new name and different pronouns, it is important to take some time to find out more about your child’s feelings. With younger children, this process takes more time. A child’s sense of gender identity can continue to change as they move toward adolescence. Good questions to ask include: How long have you felt this way? How do you feel about your body? How do you feel about being grouped with the boys or the girls? Which group do you fit in with best? Who do you want to be when you grow up?
Additional questions to ask teens include: How did you fit in with girls and boys when you were younger? How do you feel about the changes to your body that come with puberty? How do you feel when people view you as male or female? Who have you talked to about this so far? How certain do you feel about your gender identity?
It is very important to find out how much distress your child is experiencing, and what they want you to do to help. If your child is in significant ongoing distress, seek counseling from a therapist who is knowledgeable about gender identity. Even if your child is not in distress, it’s a good idea to seek counseling as a family if your child has disclosed a transgender identity. Family therapy will help you address your child’s need to affirm their true self and your concerns about proceeding safely.
Once you have a better understanding of what your child is feeling, be sure to ask why they want you to use the new name and different pronouns. Transgender children and teens feel supported and respected when important people in their lives honor this request. If you refuse, they will feel hurt and rejected. Using the new name and pronouns will be part of your child’s social transition. This is a period of time in which they try out living in accordance with the gender they feel inside rather than the sex they were assigned at birth. The social transition allows them, and you, to gain more clarity about their gender identity. If your child can gain clarity about their gender identity by early puberty, their transition will be easier in the long run.
Again, even if you still prefer to use the name you gave them, you should honor your child’s request. You may find it hard to use the new name and pronouns consistently at first, but over time, with practice, you will be able to do so. Through this process, you will gain a deeper understanding of how your child feels inside.
Irwin Krieger, LCSW is a clinical social worker in private practice in New Haven, CT. A graduate of Yale with an MSW from the University of Connecticut, he has provided psychotherapy for LGBT individuals, couples and families for almost 30 years. Since 2004, Irwin has been working extensively with transgender teens and young adults and their parents. He is the author of Helping Your Transgender Teen: A Guide for Parents.
You can find information about the book and an extensive list of resources for parents at:
Helping Your Transgender Teen
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