“My daughter’s school teacher called me and told me that my daughter confided in her and told her that she doesn’t feel that she belongs in the female body. I am shocked! I don’t know how to break the silence and ask my 12-year-old what she is feeling. How do I find out that it is true, and not just a sign that she needs more attention? Lately she has been dealing with a lot of puberty problems. As a parent, I don’t know what to do or how to handle the situation. Help!”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Jamie Bruesehoff
Wow! What an overwhelming phone call that must have been. First of all, take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay. Puberty can be a really challenging time for young people, but it’s wonderful news that your child is articulating some of what they are struggling with and that they are reaching out to a trusted adult for help.
As parents, one of the biggest gifts we can give our children is a safe space, a soft spot to land. Growing up is not an easy journey, and when things get difficult and confusing, we want them to know that we always have their backs. This doesn’t mean letting our children get away with anything they want, but it means making our relationship with our children a priority and respecting their own self-understanding. You clearly love your child and want to respond in the best way possible. Know that no matter what you say or do, you will not change your child’s gender identity. You will not increase or decrease the likelihood of your child identifying as transgender or non-binary. By supporting them, you give them the opportunity of having the best possible mental health outcomes and growing into the successful adults they were meant to be.
Starting the conversation can be really tricky. Be sure you have some time available; you don’t want to be rushing off to the next thing. Curb your expectations. Don’t expect your child to spill every inner most thought, though they might. More likely, this will be an ongoing journey of the two of you together. Respect their privacy by not sharing what they’ve told you without their permission unless it’s medically necessary (i.e if they are a danger to themselves or someone else). Sometimes when the silence feels deafening and just getting the words out feels impossible, writing a letter can be a helpful alternative. In fact, my daughter often likes to talk about tough stuff in a journal we pass back and forth. It gives her time and space to respond and removes some of the pressure of a face-to-face conversation.
While young people may often seem like they are in their own little world, they pick up on all of our cues—our body language, our tone, our facial expressions. Your child will pick up on your anxiety and your doubts, so take some time first to work through your feelings. When we get scared or overwhelmed, we can be angry, harsh, skeptical, or dismissive. It’s a way to protect ourselves from being vulnerable, but all it does is build walls and fracture relationships. Before we initiate conversations about anything in our children’s lives, including gender and body image, we have to be prepared to truly listen.
That being said, please know that most parents aren’t prepared for these conversations ahead of time! They often come as a total surprise with a steep learning curve. You’re not alone, but you’re going to be okay and your kid is going to be okay. It will be helpful to allay some of your fears and answer some of your questions by learning about the diverse spectrum of gender identities. There are some great resources here at My Kid Is Gay in the Resources and Gender sections of the site to get you started. By doing your own research, you can avoid putting your questions and preconceived notions on your child. They have enough on their plate.
You mention being unsure of whether your child’s feelings are true or a sign that they need more attention. I suggest worrying less about what is true and more about truly listening and connecting with your child without any judgment. I know that is easier said than done. If you’re anything like me, your mind is racing with all the possible places this could lead. Again, take a deep breath. You won’t be able to fully meet her where she is if you’re stuck in your own head.
One of the the tricks I use with my own kids when their worries start to get out of hand is something we call the “What If Game”. Well, the “what if” part happens whether we want it to or not. Our minds start racing, throwing every possible problem or outcome at us, and before we know it we’re drowning in panic. So instead, we answer the questions. Usually, facing the actual reality is far less intimidating than all of the “what if” questions piling up unanswered.
So let’s look at just a few of the things you’re wondering about, based on your question.
What if she just needs more attention? If you listen carefully to her feelings and provide a safe space for her to work those out, you will have given her exactly what she needed in the process. Supporting her will not push her into a transgender or non-binary identity.
What if I take this seriously, and it turns out to not be real? Your child will know that you listen to, trust, and respect them. You will have a stronger relationship, and your child will have felt valued and heard. This means your child will know they can come to you with the next tricky feeling or difficult situation they are facing.
As the conversation with your child evolves, seek out and utilize available resources. There are counselors who specialize in this and can help you and your child unpack what they are feeling. There are support groups for youth and adults. There are books and online communities. Your child is likely working to figure out and articulate their own truth, which is no easy task. They need to know you are a partner on this journey and that you trust them to know themselves. After that, follow their lead and get ready for a beautiful, hard, and immensely rewarding adventure of authenticity, learning, and discovery.
Jamie Bruesehoff is a writer, speaker, and advocate. She is mom to three spirited children including a transgender daughter. She holds a Masters of Arts in Theology from Gettsyburg Lutheran Seminary and has worked in outdoor recreation and children’s fitness. You can find her on her blog, I am totally *that* mom, writing about life, advocacy, self care, parenting, faith, and more. In her free time, you’ll find her playing in the woods with her family. Follow her on twitter @hippypastorwife.