When a child begins to question their gender identity or comes out as transgender, the process of growing up can become infinitely more complicated. As the parent of a transgender or gender nonconforming child, you also face a whole new set of struggles. Instead of feeling guilty for not understanding or approving of your child’s gender identity, understand where these feelings come from and how to move forward in a way that is beneficial to the whole family.
What is a Transgender Child?
A transgender child is one who feels their sex and gender do not match up. Sex in this instance refers to their physical anatomy, while gender is what they feel that they are and want to represent themselves to the world. For example, a child born with male genitalia can feel psychologically and emotionally that their gender is actually aligned with the female gender.
For many people, it can be mind boggling to think that a person who looks like a certain gender does not feel that they are. Choosing a gender, however, is just as involuntary as choosing your own height.
“[Parents] really need to understand that you are born with your gender identity. It’s an immutable characteristic in part of your core being and your gender is not a choice,” explains Dr. Johanna Olson, MD, Director of the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Parenting a Transgender Child
Understanding what a transgender child is does not necessarily mean a parent knows how to process and move forward with this monumental life development.
“The first thing is love your child. It’s as easy as that. Make sure you love your child for who your child is telling you he or she is,” Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, advises. Ehrensaft, a developmental and clinical psychologist, urges parents to communicate support to their child as the immediate first step.
Connor Barnas is the mother of two children, with her youngest, a six year old son, exhibiting an interest in gender fluidity.
“I have to say that I would never discourage my son from dressing in girl’s clothes if that’s his desire, if that’s what he would like to do. My deepest belief is that it will cause a disruption in the connection between the two of us,” Barnas explains of her willingness to support her child’s gender exploration.
It goes without saying that supporting your child is always a top priority as a parent, but it is understandable that there may be a disconnect between intention and execution. For all of Barnas’s acceptance of her son, she describes a much different reaction from her husband.
“My husband believes that maybe while he likes to dress flamboyantly, it’s more important that we direct him to dress a specific way, that we have to help him, that it’s not really coming up from within him, and that it’s our job to redirect him to put him in gender-specific boy clothes and to not encourage him,” Barnas says. According to Ehrensaft, this type of reaction from one parent, if not both, is not uncommon. She notes, “it’s often dads that have a harder time than moms. But whoever that parent is, I would say that’s a very important time to get some mental health supports, so the two of you can talk about it together.” Another strategy? Work to plan out compromises that incorporate the needs and feelings of both parents and the child. In doing so, be sure to remind your child that there is nothing wrong with them, and that any restrictions placed on their self-expression are the result of an unfair society– even if your feelings don’t completely reflect that sentiment.
Bringing an experienced professional into the equation can provide much needed guidance and release from guilt, confusion, and distress.
“I think families feel very alone when this happens to them, if they are experiencing this with their child,” says Olson, who is also the Medical Director of the Center for TransYouth Health and Development at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. To help combat feelings of isolation, Ehrensaft recommends seeking out support for yourself as a parent in the form of a mental health professional, community support groups, or religious organizations.
In a society that places so much importance on appearance, imagine feeling that what you look like is in complete incongruence with how you feel you should look, or want to look. This is more than the desire to tweak a few imperfections, this is the need to represent your identity accurately to the world around you. For a transgender child, having the support and love of their parents will help ease the burden of an already difficult adolescent period.