Parenting is like a box of chocolates. You never know what kind of human you will be raising. Raising a transgender teen is nothing I ever imagined would show up in my box! For the first thirteen years of my child’s life, they identified as a cis female. My teen was a girly girl leading up to middle school. Shoot, some of our biggest power struggles in childhood were around not wearing sundresses during the cold, wet winters in Seattle! There was no sign of masculinity here. And then things changed. My son was at an all-girls middle school when he came to realize that he identifies as male—a tricky situation as you might imagine. And this is where things got really interesting. There isn’t a great deal of literature on how to raise a healthy, happy transgender teen because it was drastically less common just ten years ago. So, I can only offer suggestions as both a mother of a transgender teen and a therapist based on my personal experience and research over the last four years.
Start with the basics
Take time to research and understand what it means to experience gender dysphoria and identify as transgender. Most adults, myself included, need more insight into the differences between sexual preferences and gender identification. If your teen is open to educating you, that is fantastic, but you may also need to do some homework on your own. Getting the facts will allow you to be more sensitive when communicating with your child, because you will be using the correct terminology.
Even if you are accepting, you may have biases or judgments. You may need to deconstruct your biases about the queer community at large. Recognizing any prejudices you might have about the greater community will allow you to create a safe space of exploration for your child.
Get comfortable with getting a little (or a lot) uncomfortable
With so many changes, things may feel a bit awkward. Name and pronoun changes are not easy when you have used their birth name and pronoun for their entire childhood. According to my now seventeen-year-old son, using the right pronoun and their chosen name is one of the most significant things a parent can do to show their support.
You will find yourself in some difficult situations where you will be required to explain the facts or correct others when they misgender your child. Though uncomfortable, doing so can also demonstrate to your child your support and sensitivity.
Get a support team in place
The facts are that transgender youth have a higher suicide rate than other teens. It is best to make sure you have medical and mental health professionals available—a team that your child trusts and feels comfortable confiding in. It is always best to get referrals from people you know, but be sure they align with your approach and values. And while you are at it, identify a professional or support group that can help you to adjust to your new normal. This is not just a tough transition on the child; it can also be extremely challenging for parents. It took me a few years to fully accept our new reality. Not to be dramatic, but for me, it was an experience analogous to a mourning process.
Listen and just be present
This is hard to do, but it is vital in continuing to build a relationship with your teen based on mutual trust and respect. This is the time when you need to follow your child’s lead. They are the expert in defining their identity, and they typically know much more about gender identity and expression than do most adults in their lives. By simply being present and listening, you demonstrate your love while reassuring your child that you are on their team.
Create shared agreements
It can be helpful to discuss the steps to transition and the timing of each step. There will be lots to discuss on how you can best support your child through their transition. They may want to change their name, use a different pronoun, dress differently, change their hair, or start hormone therapy. It is helpful to have an open discussion about the different stages of transitioning and how, when, and who will inform others of the change. You may have different timing in sharing the changes with friends, family members, and your child’s school community. You’ll want to think through some specific details about what bathrooms are available to your child, what sports teams they may join, what gender to list on forms, or what cabin your child will be assigned to at summer camp.
Discuss thoughts and feelings in a safe and protected space
It is important to be open in sharing your thoughts and feelings. Establish a two-way dialogue where both you and your teen are clear that you are partners in this. Your child needs to hear and understand you, too, so be transparent about your struggles. Be sensitive and intentional about what and how you share so you don’t convey the message that your teen is responsible for your pain or suffering.
The facts are that you are probably doing your very best, and these types of transitions can get messy. You are going to mess up! It’s going to require kindness and patience as you move through this journey together with your teen.
*Cis/Cisgender – Adjective that means “identifies as their sex assigned at birth” derived from the Latin word meaning “on the same side.”
**This article and its content were reviewed by and endorsed by Melissa’s seventeen-year-old son before publishing.