Hello dear. Please sit down. Or let’s take a walk if that feels better. You need some water? How about a bite to eat? It’s important to tend to your basic needs at this moment. Your child just told you something that was very surprising, or maybe a little surprising, or maybe you kinda sorta knew, and feel like you shouldn’t be shocked, but here you are.
Your child is trans. Maybe they told you face to face. Maybe it was a text. Maybe you found out through the grapevine. Maybe you found a note crumpled up in a backpack.
Your child is not who you thought they were. They are not who they were told they were.
I’m not sure that “rules” are really helpful here but you know what? Some structure and feeling some sense of stability under your feet is good right now.
Rule 1: Comfort In, Dump Out
Okay, I need you to do one thing right now. Promise me, okay? Keep breathing. Dig deep into your coping strategies and utilize them all right now. Your child needs you now more than ever. I know you want to cry or scream or panic because you’re scared for them but you cannot do that in front of your child. Please don’t. And if you already did there’s some repair work to do but please keep reading.
It’s important to follow the “Ring Theory.” And this includes FRIENDS AND FAMILY. If you’re reading this in support of a parent whose child is trans, do NOT “dump” onto them your fears or concerns. Get a gosh darn therapist for that (see Rule #8).
“The person in the center ring, and inner rings, can complain about the crisis to those in outer rings, but those in outer rings should offer only comfort and support to those in inner rings.”
Your child is the middle of the ring.
Comfort in, dump out. Got it?
Rule 2: Affirm, Affirm, Affirm
Your “assigned female at birth” child tells you they are male? Or your “assigned male at birth” child tells you they’re non-binary? There could be a lot of different variations here, but the most important thing to remember is that your child is the only one inside their own head and own body.
The National Institute of Health has this to say: “family support and acceptance is associated with greater self-esteem, social support, general health status, less depression, less substance abuse, and less suicidal ideation and behaviors among LGBT youth.”
Your support = their survival
Use the pronouns your child asks you to use. Use the name your child asks you to use. Now is not the time to complain that you spent days of your life pouring through the baby-name websites to find just the perfect moniker. If you haven’t already, you may hear the term “dead name.” I used to think that meant that the old person they were is “dead” to them, and that was a hard pill to swallow. I’ve since learned though that it’s the name that would be listed on your tombstone if you never transitioned and if nobody accepted who you told them you were.
And listen, here’s the hard part. Really hard. “Data indicate that 82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide.”
“Dead name” isn’t a dramatic term for a former name. It’s the very real threat of living an unsupported, unaffirmed life of secrecy and shame. Please take this seriously.
Rule 3: Research, Research, Research
Buy all the books (Parenting Your Transgender Teen: Positive Parenting Strategies for Raising Transgender, Nonbinary, and Gender Nonconforming Teens ) is especially good.
Listen to all the podcasts (I recommend The Gender Reveal Party Podcast from my friend Jay).
Watch the Disclosure documentary (have tissues in hand).
Follow trans people on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Follow accounts like the HRC (Human Rights Coalition), The Trevor Project, GLAAD, etc.
Caveat: PLEASE use discretion when choosing which transgender “experts” to listen to. Actual trans people is a good start.
Rule 4: Prepare for Personal Armageddon
I’m just going to come out and say it. If and when your child is ready to come out to the world at large, you will lose friends. You will lose family. You may lose your place of worship. You will be betrayed, in the deepest ways you never thought possible. Maybe it will be a big relationship like your marriage, or a smaller one like the coworker you made nice small talk with at lunch, but it will happen.
And. It’s. Okay.
As much as it hurts, and as scary as it feels, it will be okay. And the most heartbreaking part of it all is that you didn’t lose them, THEY lost you. They lost your beautiful child and your beautiful family.
But you will find new people. The best people. Trust me.
Rule 5: Build New Connections
Is there a PFLAG chapter in your area? Non-profits that serve LGBTQ people? Affirming church? Start reaching out and making new friends. There are a lot of great online groups for support as well. (Reach out to me if you want connection. I don’t want to compromise the safety of the groups by posting links here).
And as far as finding an affirming church, it’s important to understand what “affirming” means. It does NOT simply mean “welcoming.” Ask these three questions and you’ll know if it’s a safe place for your child and your family:
1. Does this church believe that being homosexual or transgender is inherently sinful?
2. Are homosexual and transgender people allowed to get married in the church or serve in church ministry?
3. Will my child’s homosexual or transgender identity be treated as a beautiful representation of the diversity of God’s love, not a strange anomoly to be pities or tolerated?
(We’ve found a lovely Episcopal church in our community.)
Rule 6: Sharpen Your Claws, Soften Your Tongue
There’s a reason for the term “Mama Bear.” Hoooooboy. You think you got mad when someone pushed your child on the playground? You’ll laugh at what you once thought was upsetting after kids call your child a “f@ggot, disgusting, tr@nny, etc.,” or tell them that God hates them, or that the devil will r@pe them. Wait until your kid is no longer allowed at friends’ houses they’ve known for years–when they’re made to feel like they shouldn’t exist when they already…don’t want to exist.
Hold on. Getting heated. Need to come back to this.
Took a day. I literally took a break and returned.
Look, you will get angry. More angry than you ever thought you could be. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is normal and natural to want to protect your child. And sometimes that fiery passion can move mountains.
But you can’t be super angry all the time. Not only does it prevent you from getting things that you need, but it’s very exhausting. You’ll have to learn to be diplomatic, play the game, and sometimes nod and smile when you really wanna bare your teeth in a different way.
Maybe take up boxing. I’ve pictured many faces on my heavy bag and said many expletive-filled rants while sweating it out in my garage.
Which leads me to my next point.
Rule 7: Get a Damn Therapist
If you’re not already seeing a therapist, get on a waiting list now. Waiting list? Yeah, the mental healthcare system is kinda broken right now. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth investing in.
Call your insurance company to see if they have free sessions available or even access to free services online. Call your local community mental healthcare center. Keep asking.
And this is something I would advise any parent, no matter their family’s needs. We all need therapy y’all!
Rule 8: Find an Attorney and Gender Care Clinic
There may come a time when your child is set on their new name, and you want to pursue a legal name change. Fortunately, there are some pro bono services out there that can help you with this process. And as daunting as it sounds, it really does make everything WAY easier in the long run. No more dead naming by substitute teachers at school who aren’t informed of preferred names, on medical paperwork, etc.
Oh, and you’re also going to find yourself in ALL sorts of situations where your child’s legal rights aren’t being recognized. If you didn’t already have empathy for what it’s like to navigate this world with a marginalized identity, you’re about to get a crash course.
You’ll also want to find a gender care clinic in your area if possible. (The Gender Pathways program at Children’s Mercy is wonderful). These are medical professionals who actually GET what your child is going through, know all the best practices and evidence-based treatments.
Rule 9: Celebrate Your Child
I’ve saved the best for last. Guess what? Having a transgender child is a BEAUTIFUL sacred thing. I don’t wish the hardships trans kids and their families face on anyone, but the benefits of affirming, loving and CELEBRATING your child just as they are has ripple effects. You’re forced to face down your own biases and prejudices, knocking down walls you didn’t know existed, and shining a light on false idols of patriarchy and cisgender, hetero normative systems. What needs to be dismantled will be dismantled and what’s rebuilt is built on pure LOVE. And nothing can destroy what’s built on that strong of a foundation.
Okay, that’s it. No more rules. Though I could add 20 more to this list. But you’re probably already overwhelmed. Nobody else loves your kid as much as you, and that’s edifying and terrifying.
So just know this. You’re doing great. You’re reading this! You’re trying! You’re learning! And that’s a great start.