“Hello! I am the mom of a 14-year-old claiming to be a trans boy. I worry that my child is getting this from what she sees on the Internet and with her own friends. I also worry that I am losing the daughter I’ve always known and loved to a dramatic transition we haven’t discussed yet that she doesn’t fully understand. Is my child really a trans boy, or simply caving in to peer pressure?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Lance Hicks
Dear Worried Mom,
Thank you for reaching out! As a parent, hearing your child say they identify as trans can bring up a lot of complicated feelings—including the fear and doubt you’ve expressed. By seeking information and guidance, you are doing important and difficult work to support your child. Kudos!
Over recent years, trans visibility in American pop culture has exploded. Even five years ago, it was much less common for the average cisgender (non-trans) person to know what the term “transgender” meant, let alone to be able to identify examples of trans people in mainstream media. Today, things have changed. Icons like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock star on television and sign book deals, national debate over so-called “Bathroom Bills” sparks widespread concern, and social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr give trans, gender non-conforming, and questioning youth an opportunity to fashion new language and a politics of gender liberation that often leaves the adults in their lives feeling left in the dark. With this new burst of visibility for trans people, it sounds like you’re worried your child has latched onto an identity that might not be authentic or accurate.
It’s true that the teenage years are a time of self-exploration—not just for trans youth, but for all young people. The identities we develop during this period in our lives don’t always look the same by the time we reach adulthood. Still, it’s important to acknowledge that most people are highly aware of their gender identities, regardless of how old or young they may be. When little boys on the playground avoid socializing with girls, or when little girls refuse to play with toys they think are “for boys,” these children are expressing a strong awareness of their own genders. It’s the same for trans youth. There really is no age when we’re “too young” to know our gender identities—and if these identities happen to shift or change later in life, the way we feel today is still valid. While the increase in trans visibility has definitely brought conversations about gender to the forefront of many spaces, it’s unlikely that your child’s identity was caused by peer pressure. Trans youth today are one of the most marginalized groups of adolescents. They’re more likely to be bullied in school, experience anxiety or depression, face violence, deal with low self-esteem, navigate homelessness, or even die by suicide. While things have gotten better for trans youth in many ways, it’s still far from trendy to actually be a transgender teen today. Even if all the hardships were erased, the decision to come out as transgender and begin a transition is life-altering. It’s not a decision that’s taken lightly, even for youth who may be in a place of exploration. When a young person goes through a gender transition, they face all the stress that come with a major life change—but must also navigate systemic injustices that put them at serious risk. One of the biggest factors in a trans youth’s ability to grow into a healthy, happy, and well-adjusted adult? Family support.
Adolescence may be about self-discovery and exploration, but it’s also about learning where we belong. The fact that your child came to you and told you he identifies as a trans boy is a huge compliment! It means he sees you as a loving and supportive parent, and that he trusts you to accept him for who he is. While it’s true your child’s identity may change later in life, he needs to see that he wasn’t wrong to be open with you about how he’s feeling right now. It’s okay if you’ve got some feelings of uncertainty or discomfort, or if you don’t understand everything your child is going through. Maybe you’re worried your child will want to take medical steps, like hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries, and you’re feeling anxious about changes that seem permanent. It’s good to remember that parents of trans youth everywhere have shared your concerns. They are normal, and so are you. At the same time, try to rest easy. Every trans person has a unique experience of their own identity, so the best way to find out your child’s thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires, is to ask. There is no shame in feeling afraid, but it’s important to work past these fears, in order to maintain a strong, positive relationship with your child, and provide them the best possible support.
Don’t be afraid to be open with him about your feelings. You can say, “This is new for me, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I believe what you’ve told me and love you unconditionally. Nothing you tell me will ever change that.” A lot of well-meaning parents tell their trans children, “I’ll always love you, but I can’t accept that you’re trans.” Sometimes they say, “You mean the world to me, but I really don’t think you are transgender. You’re probably just confused.” While these sentiments may come from a well-intentioned place, they cause much more harm than good. When young people come across an identity that feels right to them, being told they are loved despite this new way of seeing themselves, or that their parents don’t view their self-image as valid, can make any reassurances of love feel hollow. It’s like saying, “I love you, but I don’t love the person you’re telling me you are.” This may not be what you mean, but it’s what your child’s likely to hear—so be sure to be as clear as you can about that unconditional love.
The sting of what can feel like rejection to your child has serious risks. Youth who don’t feel their parents respect or accept their trans identity are likely to become secretive, to stop trusting their parents, and to lose out on their most important source of support (you) just when they need it most. Trans youth whose parents don’t accept their identity are at a much greater risk for running away, experiencing abuse, or even harming themselves. For all those reasons, it’s important that you challenge yourself to listen to what your child is telling you, even when it’s hard. Even when you’ve got doubts. Even when you’re afraid. After all, parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Your child doesn’t need you to be perfect, but he does need you in his life—and that means honoring and accepting that his trans identity is real and that he is who he says he is right now, at this very moment.
Lance Hicks is a biracial community organizer and youth worker from Detroit, Michigan. He came out as trans in high school, and became involved with gender justice work shortly afterwards. Currently, Lance works to support LGBTQ youth organizers of color, works part-time at a transitional living shelter for teens and young adults, and studies social work.