Relax, because it’s okay to be uncertain! Having a transgender child doesn’t mean parents and carers will instantly know everything about the topic - it’s a learning path a family can travel together. All you need is the willingness to learn, grow, and become an empowered parent.
While Australian data are still coming together, we know at least 1.4 million adults in the United States are living as transgender. Your child is not alone, and needs support to grow into a healthy and self-accepting adult.
To get that going, here are 5 simple tips to help you and your transgender child, no matter where you both are on the journey.
1.There is no right time for acceptance.
Parents sometimes shy away from discussing sex and sexuality with children, opting to “wait till they are older” and avoid awkwardness or uncomfortable questions. Unfortunately, without an environment that includes safe, open discussions about gender and sexual identities, a child can feel anxious about coming out to their loved ones.
Take the lead! Create a family culture of openness and non-judgement that includes non-confronting conversations about sexuality and gender. Try discussing a movie or TV character with your teen - “Hey, Penguin doesn’t seem to be sexually attracted to any other characters in Gotham. Maybe he’s asexual. What do you think?”
2. Accept who they are, don’t assume who they are.
If a child might be transgender, go with the flow, and don’t dismiss it as “just a phase”. It’s true that some children who identify as trans later change their mind, but this is a low percentage. Even if your child is part of this small group, there is no harm in accepting their identity now.
Remember that not every transgender child will want to transition, have surgery or hormonal treatment, wear a certain type of clothing, change their hobbies, or is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or pansexual. Listen to your child about what being trans means to them, and let their individuality lead the way.
Oh, and be careful about “mis-gendering” a child by unconsciously using terms and expectations that don’t fit their true gender. Not every girl likes wearing dresses, and not all boys are aggressive or into sports. Your child can identify with a gender without accepting stereotypes! This can be as basic as using their birth name instead of their chosen name - Jill might have been “Jack” at birth, but calling her that denies part of her identity.
Families will slip up, and parents might even feel hurt by their child choosing a new name, but it’s okay to apologise, accept, and move forward.
There’s no right way to be trans.
3. Learn. Learn. Learn.
Overwhelmed parents, trying to keep up with new terminologies and expectations, can sometimes wish for “the good old days”, when everyone was just male, female and straight.
But remember, transgender people, along with all the other colours on the LGBTIQA+ rainbow, have always existed, but were forced into silence or punished for speaking out. Even though the rate of change can seem exhausting, this is how we create a world where transgender children can grow up safe and healthy.
There used to be only two kinds of bread, but life is richer with chia seed loaves and sourdough!
Speaking of bread, meet...
Who knows, you may not be as heteronormative as you thought you were!
4. Be their protective factor.
People who identify as transgender have significantly higher rates of mental illness and suicide, which is sometimes used to argue against transgender acceptance. But being trans isn’t the problem - it’s the discrimination, stigma, and abuse they can face daily, and compromises their wellbeing.
Being transgender is not a mental illness, and a child’s gender identity is not a symptom that needs treatment. Therapy can, however, help your child find new ways to cope with the challenges of being transgender in a world that hasn’t reached full acceptance, so consider sending your child to a transgender-friendly psychotherapist.
Be their loudest and proudest advocate but never “out” your child - they can choose who to share their transgender status with. No one needs to know until your child is ready to tell them. The best way you can advocate and show solidarity is to give your child control over their own story.
Fun fact: family support is the strongest predictor of health and happiness for transgender people. Offer your child this unconditional support, and watch them flourish into a happy, healthy adult.
5. Seek your own support.
Parents of transgender children may face stigma, unkindness from friends or relatives, challenges with their religious or cultural communities, and struggles with changed expectations of their child’s future.
Seeking your own professional support may help to manage the challenges of being in a transgender family, and provide strengths that protect you and your child. Find a local or online support group. Engage in psychotherapy. Learn from the lived experiences of transgender people.
Come to terms with your child’s identity, and be a leader and champion for our first generation of free and accepted transgender Australians!
Thank you greatly to Michelle Sheppard (link: https://mishsheppard.com/), trans woman, colleague, and friend, for her input and guidance to this article.
Dr Annabel Chan
Dr Annabel Chan is a diversity-friendly Clinical Psychologist who specialises in social media use, attachment and identity formation, and behavioural problems in adolescents. A skilled navigator of cyber-culture and online social behaviour, Annabel enjoys helping her clients to get the most out of communication technology and recognise its dangers.