What Parents of Transgender Children Want You to Know
All parents want their children to feel happy and at home in their own skin. And all parents worry for their children’s safety, and wonder if they're doing a decent job parenting or if they’re completely blowing it.
Parents of transgender children are no different.
But, while culture has begun to change in the direction of increased awareness and understanding, transgender individuals and their families face a host of battles that cis (when one’s gender matches one’s assigned sex at birth) people just don’t.
Here are just some of the many experiences that are specific to the trans journey.
It’s a Process of Discovery
Kathie Moehlig says the clues that her son, who was assigned female at birth (AFAB), was transgender were there all along — though the pieces of the puzzle fit together more easily in retrospect. At 18 months old, she remembers, he’d take off dresses — though wasn’t similarly inspired to disrobe when clothed in pants.
“At three years old, the teacher would say, ‘Okay, boys, get your buckets,’ and my son would go get his bucket and the girls would say, ‘No, you’re a girl!’” she says.
Years later, when a friend was going through chemo, he and some others shaved their heads in solidarity. “I watched my child watching herself as her head was shaved and I thought, this is not the typical response of a female — they’re not going to sit taller and have a sparkle in their eye that wasn’t there before,” she says.
It was as though he’d come home. Her son transitioned six years ago, and Moehlig subsequently founded TransFamily Support Services, an organization that supports trans youth and their families.
There Are Feelings of Grief, Loneliness and Fear
Upon learning one’s child is transgender, many parents will experience a sense of loss. A mother might be heartbroken to see that beautiful name she’d chosen for her child replaced with one of which she has no connection. A dad might grapple with letting go of his fantasy of renaming the business Smith and Son. The whole family might feel a pang of loneliness when they look around and see few, if any, friends, neighbors or acquaintances on the same path.
Additionally, as with so many aspects of parenting — from discipline to diet — parents of transgender kids worry about whether they’re handling it properly, whether they’re saying and doing the right things. But, unlike so many aspects of parenting, supporting trans children isn’t something that’s been studied or even discussed openly for years and years, so finding support and resources isn’t nearly as easy.
The Statistics Are Scary
Some facts about people who are transgender would terrify any parent. For instance, transgender people are far more likely to have attempted suicide, be unemployed and live in poverty than the broader population, according to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they’d experienced “serious psychological distress” in the past year, and 40 percent said they had attempted suicide.
The majority of respondents who were out or assumed to be trans while in school experienced some form of mistreatment, and 17 percent reported mistreatment so severe it caused them to leave school. A smaller study from the Transgender Health Clinic at Cincinnati Children’s found that almost 63 percent of its patients had a history of bullying, and 23 percent had a history of school suspension or expulsion.
There’s a Lot of Frontline Defense Being Played
In a case study provided by TransActive Gender Center, the anonymous parent of an eight-year-old transgender girl, assigned male at birth (AMAB), shares her story:
I try to block out all the noise of the world that denies and/or denigrates the existence of my child. My child socially transitioned before kindergarten and has never been confronted personally, by bullying or non-acceptance — yet.
Even within our wonderfully supportive communities, the world can be too much for these beautiful children. I see her look away from the TV when the Disney show she’s watching has a boy in drag that everyone is laughing at. I see her pull inward when the news mentions the transgender military ban.
As parents, we end up being the frontline defenders of our children. We have awkward conversations with school administrators about why our children should be allowed to use the girls’ bathroom when they are saying they shouldn’t. It’s trying to find the right moment to quietly tell the dental receptionist that although the official name on the insurance says one thing, my child prefers to be called another. It’s having a quick talk with school chums’ parents who’ve invited your child to a sleepover and wondering if they will still be friends after the conversation.
All these little awkward conversations we do knowing that our child, once grown, will have tenfold as adults.
Systemic Support Is Lacking
Transgender children and their families face a host of challenges, and often managing the administrative aspects of life can be some of the gnarliest. Until processes and standards at schools, insurance companies, and the medical and legal systems get more streamlined in terms of their support for transgender children, the onus will continue to fall upon parents to advocate and educate. And that job can be relentless.
When Moehlig’s son came out as transgender six years ago, she recalls that practical concerns proved the most difficult. “The hardest part for me was educating everybody and getting him the care that he needed; six years ago, there weren’t any doctors,” she says.
Things have changed over the past several years — particularly in terms of finding medical treatment for trans adults — but it’s still challenging to find appropriate care for transgender youth, as it’s a newer specialty. Fortunately, organizations such as TransFamily Support Services can help connect families of trans youth with doctors who are caring, well-trained and have the appropriate understanding of trans issues.
The Decision to Transition Is Never Made Lightly
Often, parents find themselves on defense, feeling as though they need to justify allowing their child’s transition to others. “Friends and families may feel they are being supportive by offering advice or playing devil’s advocate,” says Darlene Tando, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “The Conscious Parent’s Guide to Gender Identity.”
“However, most families have already been down the road of evaluating all aspects of their child’s gender identity and transition, and have come to the place they are now after careful, loving, diligent consideration,” she says.
Moehlig agrees, emphasizing that it’s a long, deeply intentional process. “We see professionals, we see doctors long before we open our mouths to anybody,” she says. “The experts tell us to follow the lead of our child, and while we do, it’s not like we just let kids go off without a support system or willy nilly; it’s that we’re listening to our children and believing them.”
There’s Too Much Unsolicited Advice
In another case study provided by TransActive Gender Center, one anonymous mother of a seven-year-old transgender girl explains how her daughter, assigned male at birth (AMAB), revealed and discovered her true gender:
Our kiddo was gender non-conforming for the first several years. By four years old, she only wore dresses, though she clearly presented as a boy. It was then that we started receiving plenty of unsolicited advice, from strangers and family alike — make him wear pants. Schedule more play dates with boys. Spend more time with his father. Give him more “boy” toys. Tell him only girls paint their fingernails. Make the ponytails so tight that he won’t want to wear them.
What I want parents to know is that my child doesn’t want to be a girl. She is a girl. No amount of male bonding time or toys or clothing is going to make her into a boy. It just isn’t that easy. Our kiddo socially transitioned at six years old, and is now a happy and confident little girl. We still get unsolicited advice on occasion. But the only advice we follow is to let her be the leader on her gender journey.
Accepting the Social Transition Is Key for Development
One reason people might be resistant to accepting the transition of a young child is that they imagine it in medical terms. But that’s way down the road. Often, trans children will have a “social transition,” which means they will begin to live as the gender with which they identify, not the sex they were assigned at birth. Typically, this involves changes to hairstyles and clothing, pronouns and names.
Later, as puberty approaches, they may or may not decide to go on puberty blockers that can give them more time to decide whether to start hormone treatment. But many parents agree that it is often the social transition that is most deeply affirming to the child.
Yes, Getting the Pronouns Right Is a Big Deal
If you’re a woman, imagine that every time someone talked to or about you, they addressed you as sir, him or he. It would make you feel hurt, insulted and ashamed, right? Well, it’s the same for these kids.
Moehlig recalls that, after her son shaved his head, people would refer to her child as “your son.” “He’d stand a little taller, put his shoulders back, but when I’d correct them, he’d kind of show disappointment or discomfort. So, I stopped correcting them,” she says.
“Parents have a really hard time changing pronouns,” she adds. “I tell them to watch the youth’s reaction every time you get it right and every time you get it wrong, that listening to your child includes watching their behaviors, especially when they’re very young.”
Coming Out Is Always Scary
Moehlig, who has worked with more than 350 families, says that while every family’s experience is unique, there’s one big commonality. “I haven’t met a youth yet who wasn’t terrified of coming out to their parent, no matter their relationship,” she says.
TransFamily Support Services offers practical support to trans youth during the coming out process — sometimes, in the form of representatives who join them at the kitchen table as they tell their parents. Their presence offers encouragement, information and solidarity, and can take the emotional reactivity down a notch.
Not Everyone Can Be a Part of the Experience
After the initial coming out, Moehlig says, the organization is available to help families devise plans for coming out to family and friends, which is something that should be done thoughtfully and according to the lead of the trans individual.
“It’s not about coming out so much as inviting in, you’re choosing who you’re inviting into that experience,” she explains. “It’s up to the youth; it’s their life — parents should know that just because your kid came out to you doesn’t mean they’re ready for you to come out to everyone else about it.”
It’s Often Easier Than Expected
“No one wants their child to walk a path that is difficult,” Moehlig says. “But we help parents realize that it doesn’t have to be as difficult as they’re projecting it to be.”
Tando says in her practice she’s found that, while the emotional shift parents must make when they realize their child is trans is profound and frequently involves some sadness, on the other side, there is often a surprising and deep relief.
“Many parents experience a sense of loss,” she says. “But much of this loss can be anticipatory, as going through the journey with their child often turns out to be much easier than they expect. When they watch their child transition and come into their authentic selves, most parents realize they have not lost anything at all, but rather gained a happier, more comfortable, more engaged child.”