How To Maintain A Strong Relationship With Your Transgender Child

Former deputy executive director of New York City’s LGBT Community Centre, therapist and transgender author, Elijah C. Nealy, has written the first-ever comprehensive guide to understanding and supporting trans kids, Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy With Families in Transition. Here, in his third in a series of articles for DAD.info, Elijah looks at how parents can come to terms with the news that their child is transgender and continue to support them…

How To Maintain A Strong Relationship With Your Transgender Child

Coming out as transgender is not something children or adolescents do alone. A young person’s disclosure always involves the entire family. When children and teens socially transition, parents, siblings and other family members must necessarily also 'come out'. Coming out as transgender is an inherently public act for youth and their family.

Initially, many parents are confused and overwhelmed. How did my child become transgender? How can my daughter suddenly claim to be my son? How can this child I have always known as my son just announce he is really a girl and expect me to embrace him as my daughter? Is this real? What should I do?

If your child’s coming out as transgender is a surprise, you might have a sense of shock or numbness, or you may be flooded with emotions. It may feel as if your world has been turned upside-down overnight. You may want to push the news aside, or deny that it’s true for your child. Older ideas about sex and gender being synonymous may convince you this is “just a phase.”

Lingering beliefs about transgender identity as psychiatric illness or sin cause some parents to question whether or not it is “their fault” their children believe they are transgender. They worry they did something wrong as parents; perhaps they didn’t adequately model how to be a man or woman and this led to their child’s gender confusion or cross-gender identification. These worries are typically accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame.

Some parents feel angry initially and wonder, “Why me? Why my child? Why our family?” They may be angry their child’s transition means they too have to come out; they have to tell their friends and family, neighbours and coworkers that their son is becoming their daughter, or vice versa. 

Almost all parents grapple with moments of worry and fear about their child’s physical safety and their emotional and social well being. Despite increasing acceptance, we live in a world where transgender people still face stigma and discrimination, encounter rejection from friends or coworkers, and experience verbal harassment or physical violence. It therefore makes sense that we are worried or afraid. 

Our relationship with our children is inherently gendered; we relate to them as boys or girls from our first moment with them. We are father and son, or father and daughter. As a result, some parents experience loss when they imagine their child no longer being the son or daughter they have always known. The vignette below reflects one dad’s struggle with these emotions.

Melissa’s parents sought me out six months after she came out to them as a transgender girl at 14-years-old. She was their only child. While both parents loved Melissa, it was apparent during the first appointment that her mother was further along the continuum of acceptance than her father. Melissa wanted to socially transition and was impatient with having to come to family therapy before her parents allowed her to move forward. 

As I gathered their family history, they agreed Melissa and her dad had always been closer. But since Melissa same out as transgender, she and Mum had begun to spend more time together. Mum was teaching her how to put on make up, and they often looked at different hairstyles. Melissa was eager to go shopping for new clothes and Mum said she was open to this.

Melissa’s father was quiet while they talked with me. When I invited him into our conversation, he said that he was still struggling with all this. He said he loved her and wanted her to be happy, but he wasn’t ready to call her Melissa and didn’t think he could “handle” seeing her in a skirt. Melissa was upset and impatient with his response and Dad seemed reluctant to say more.

When I met alone with the parents, I asked Dad to tell me more about his thoughts and feelings since Melissa came out. He said Melissa’s birth name was Stephen, as was his and his father’s. He too, had been his father’s only son. 

The fact that all three generations of “men” shared the same names was a source of connection and pride for Melissa’s father. When Melissa transitioned, he would lose his son, his only son, his son who bore his name and his father’s name, and since the father had no siblings, their family name would end with him. He would never have grandchildren that bore his last name. (Accurate or not, his assumption was that Melissa would marry and take her husband’s last name). 

In the moment, each of these pieces felt like a loss for her father. While he loved and wanted to support his child, he needed some time and space to grieve before he could fully move forward and embrace Melissa as his daughter.

As fathers and other family members, we need to work through our possible emotional reactions. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Research demonstrates family acceptance is the critical mediating variable in LGBT young adult risk factors. Youth who grow up in rejecting families are more likely to use drugs, become depressed and attempt suicide, compared to those who grow up in accepting families. Supportive fathers can, and do, make a difference. 

Three more important ways to support your child

1. Don't lose sight of their resilience

Despite the challenges your child might face, be careful not to focus only on the problems. Celebrate their success and accomplishments. Share their joy at being able to be who they are in the world. Trans youth are so much more than their struggles. Your child needs to see their own incredible resilience and have this reflected back to them on a regular basis.  

2. Appreciate the courage it takes to be who they are in this world 

Every day. Just doing day-to-day stuff. And appreciate the fact that you have raised a child with a strong enough sense of self to name who they are, even when others tell them differently. 

3. Hold love as most important

Transgender children and youth may face more challenges than some kids, but their future will be bright if the people who love them 'have their back'. If your child, or a young person in your life, is gender diverse or transgender, the most important thing you can do is to consistently affirm your unconditional love for them.

Say I love you often.

Say, “I love all of you.”

Say, “I love you,” even when you are still struggling to understand all this.

Say, “I love you,” even if you think being transgender is wrong or sinful.

Still say, “I love you.”

You may have to say, “I don’t get this. I was taught this is wrong. Nonetheless, I love you. All of you. Always.”

All of us want to be seen for who we are and accepted for who we are – not in spite of who we are –  by the people we love. Every human being needs to know the people close to them love them, including our transgender children and youth. 

For more information on UK services, please check NHS Choices and the Gender Identity Development Service.

Elijah C. Nealy is a therapist and former deputy executive director of New York City’s LGBT Community Centre. A trans man himself, he has written the first-ever comprehensive guide to understanding, supporting, and welcoming trans kids, Transgender Children And Youth: Cultivating Pride And Joy With Families In Transition.

Transgender Children And Youth: Cultivating Pride And Joy With Families In Transition

Covering everything from family life to school and mental health issues, as well as the physical, social and emotional aspects of transition, the book is full of best practices to support trans kids. Find out more by watching the video below. 

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