“I felt like I lost a grandchild,” says a 77-year-old grandmother in Columbus, Ohio. That was her reaction when her grandchild, “Riley,” formally announced he was transgender six years ago. While she supports her grandson, an adolescent who has recently begun hormone therapy, it has still been an adjustment for her.
The grandmother was surprised by her own feelings of loss, but it’s not unusual for parents and other family members to experience a confusing array of emotions about a child or teen who is transgender or nonbinary—even if they aim to love and support their child.
How to Support Transgender or Nonbinary Children:
1. Rethink your ideas about gender identity.
Parents who notice that their teen’s behavior and preferences don’t match the stereotypes of their sex don’t need to say anything. Even though Riley consistently behaved in a way that indicated he was born with a gender identity that did not match the sex he was born—for example, he wanted a tuxedo rather than a flower girl dress at age 4—his parents did not broach the subject with him.
That decision was a sound one, says Jen O’Ryan, Ph.D., a specialist in LGBTQ+ children and families at Double Tall Consulting in Washington state.
“Bringing it up to kids can be scary for them,” she says, even for teens. Instead, O’Ryan suggests the parent begin by challenging their own ideas about gender. “Think of gender identity more as a spectrum, rather than an either/or,” she says. For example, if a daughter wants to wear boys’ clothes and have a short haircut, parents shouldn’t automatically assume she perceives herself as male. Maybe she just finds that style more comfortable or appealing.
“Don’t worry about applying labels to everything,” O’Ryan cautions.
2. Focus on their feelings, not yours.
If the child knows or thinks they are transgender, that’s a big deal. It’s a difficult place to be—thinking the body they are in isn’t authentic for them,” says Keith Morgen, a professor of psychology at Centenary University. It is imperative that family members demonstrate support for the teen, rather than merely seeking to cope with the new reality, says Morgen. Some of those steps include:
- Expressing love and support for your child
- Becoming informed on what it means to be transgender
- Talking with your adolescent about what they are thinking and feeling
- Creating a supportive, nonjudgmental environment for repeated conversations with your teen
3. Get educated.
For a teen, “the impact of coming out is typically relative to the parent’s existing beliefs about what it means to be trans,” says O’Ryan. In other words, unsupportive parents and family members can respond in damaging ways, which can range from shaming and coercion tactics to violence and rage.
Fortunately, says O’Ryan, most parents tend to fall within a more supportive range. However, even parents who wish to understand, support, and advocate for their transgender child may not know where to turn. It’s okay to feel a little lost at first. “Keep in mind these kids likely understood their gender identity long before they came out to anyone. It’s the parents who are coming up to speed,” says O’Ryan.
There are numerous resources for family members of the transgender adolescent, whether they need help adjusting to using the appropriate personal pronoun or they are feeling confusion or anger. (See below)
Seeing a therapist is a key strategy for families with a transgender child. “It is absolutely critical to find a professional who is equipped to work with LGBTQ+ youth,” says O’Ryan. She suggests embarking on a search for the right counselor via a local or national LGBTQ+ organization. Be persistent: The first therapist may not be the right fit.
“If something doesn’t feel right, go with your gut and get a second (or third) opinion. Healthy and supportive influences during childhood through adolescence mitigates the risk of negative outcomes later in life,” says O’Ryan.
Parents, of course, are that Number 1 influence. “Be supportive. Encourage dialogue all the time to help the teen feel they can come to you,” says Morgen. ”
Transgender Organizations: Support and Charities
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, established in 1972, has more than 400 chapters nationwide seeking to build on a foundation of loving families united with LGBTQ+ people and allies.
The Trevor Project
The Trevor Project offers a national, 24-hour toll-free, confidential suicide prevention line for LGBTQ+ youth. It was founded in 1998 to assist LGBTQ+ youth questioning their sexuality and their value.
The “It Gets Better” Project
The non-profit, begun in 2010, inspires people around the world to share their stories and remind the next generation of LGBTQ+ youth there is always hope. What began as a wildly successful social media campaign to offer hope and encouragement to people struggling with their sexual identity evolved into a respected multi-media platform capable of reaching millions of youth through inspiring media programming.
Trans Youth Equality Foundation
This organization is a good, basic resource for parents. Offering links to books and guides for learning more about transgender youth.