When I used to work for the Trevor Project, sometimes I’d get calls from parents who didn’t know what to do because their young adult child had just come out to them as transgender. They wanted to support that child as best as they could, but were often stunned by the news. “My daughter says she wants to be a boy,” callers would say. “What do I do?”
These were my favorite calls. I felt like being transgender myself allowed me to give parents another perspective as they tried to figure out how to support their children. I was able to answer many of their questions and allay their fears, while also advocating for kids who were like the kid I once was.
If your daughter says she wants to be a boy (or your son says he wants to be a girl), there’s a few things you can do that’ll be helpful.
[NOTE: This article is intended for parents of young adults — people over the age of 18 who are legally able to make their own decisions regarding transition. While some of the advice I have to give might also pertain to younger people, the issue of transgender teens and children is more complicated and requires parents to make decisions on their behalf that are beyond the scope of this article.
In addition, please keep in mind that though my opinion is based on my experience as a life coach and as a transgender person, it’s meant for general purposes only and not meant to be advice about any specific situation. Please feel free to contact me for a consultation if you have specific questions about your situation.]
Take Some Time to Sit With Your Feelings
I know it seems counterintuitive to focus on your own feelings when it feels like your child really needs you and you’re desperate to support them.
But here’s the thing: your child’s feelings about their gender identity are all new to you.
You’ve known this child as a boy or as a girl for over a decade and probably picked out a name for them that meant something special to you. (One of the most difficult things for me was that I was named after a grandparent who had died before I was born and I felt guilty about letting go of that name.) You may be wondering how you missed the signs or if your child’s feelings are real. You may be sad or angry or confused or just plain overwhelmed.
It’s important to sit with these feelings because you can’t support your child in any meaningful way until you’ve processed your own feelings about their gender identity.
I know, because I’ve been on the other side of this, that your kid might be super-impatient for you to get with the program and feel like you’re rejecting them because you can’t right away. But the problem is, transition is a process for everyone — including you. It’s going to take time for you to adjust, and the longer you’ve known this child by their old name and pronouns, the longer it’s going to take to get used to the change.
So begin by thinking about how you feel and talking about it with people you trust. Communicate with your child that you love and accept them but that it’s going to take time to process this.
Be Open to Learning About Your Child's Experience
Honest communication is the key to supporting your child.
In some ways, dealing with a kid who identifies as a different gender than you expected isn’t different than other parenting issues. The key is to listen carefully, reserve judgment, and ask questions to understand better where your child is coming from.
You’ll want to clarify exactly what your child is feeling. Does your daughter want to be a boy, or does she feel she is a boy? This is an important distinction! If your daughter just wants to be a boy or wishes she were a boy, that’s a totally different thing than feeling she is a boy and she may need something totally different.
If your child feels they ARE a different gender, you’ll want to know what that means for them, what options they’re considering, and how they want to proceed.
The most important thing is the kind of support they’re looking for from you and what they DON’T want you to do. For example, although your child may have trusted you with their gender identity, not everyone is comfortable using their new name and pronouns in public or even in front of all family members. So you’ll want to talk about this so that you don’t accidentally do something that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsupported.
Give Your Child Space to Explore
Transition is neither a one-size-fits-all thing or a one-and-done type of thing.
It’s a process that requires a lot of patience as you explore. I felt like I was going through a second adolescence as I began this journey because I tried on different types of clothes, different haircuts, and different ways of thinking and talking and being, to see what I was comfortable with.
Sometimes a transgender person might not know exactly what they want or need to do until they experiment. Before I began hormones, I was sure I wanted top surgery, and later changed my mind. Of course, some things are irreversible (surgery, some effects of taking cross-sex hormones), so it’s best not to start them until you are sure. But other things — like seeing how you feel when you go out in public dressed in a certain way or how it feels to use a particular name or pronoun — are totally changeable.
Parents often ask me how to support their children as they experiment. I think the most helpful thing is to stay in the present with them. Don’t assume anything is permanent until they tell you that it is, and don’t joke about it if their pronouns, names, or thoughts about their gender identity change over time.
If your young adult is planning on going the medical route, it’s not helpful to directly challenge them (“Are you sure? You know it’s irreversible.” but you can state your concerns in respectful ways:
- Use a lot of “I statements.” If you’re worried that your child is making an irreversible mistake, you can state those feelings without making them sound like facts by saying things like “I’m worried that you may…” or “The idea of you having surgery scares me because…” This allows you to discuss how you feel with your child without imposing your will on them.
- Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions that don’t have yes or no answers, and asking them gives the answerer space to make his or her own decision. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” is a close-ended question. “What do you think might happen if you do that?” is more open-ended and invites thought.
- Talk in terms of possibilities. Use the words if, may, or might as much as possible when discussing your concerns. For example, “I think it might be better if…” or “You may feel X if…”
And don’t forget to listen and accept your child’s answers when you state these concerns! Your young adult child is an adult and the decisions ultimately are theirs to make. Giving them the space to make those decisions while being there for them regardless of the outcome is the best way you can support them as a parent.
Take Small Steps
Once you’ve talked to your child and found out what they want from you, the next step is to begin to move forward towards accepting your child’s current gender identity.
It often helps to take small steps. For example, I once spoke to a mother who was struggling to accept and support her transgender daughter’s gender identity. Throughout the conversation, she used her child’s old gender pronouns, and then towards the end I asked her what she thought of using the child’s new gender pronouns when they were at home, which she agreed to do.
This was a good first step. It showed a growing acceptance of the child’s gender identity and allowed the mother to support her child in a tangible way.
Similarly, you might begin by using your child’s chosen pronouns or name when talking to others at home or when speaking to them. Remember to always follow your child’s boundaries as you take this step — if they don’t want you to use their pronouns or name in front of certain people, don’t do it.
Be Patient With Yourself
Even if you do everything I’ve suggested, the first few months after your child shares their gender identity with you may be rough.
Many transgender young adults are impatient for their families to fully accept their transition and may feel frustrated, angry, or disrespected if you don’t do it right away. I understand that because I was one of them once, and it was hard for me to see that my parents needed to go through a transition too in order to do what I needed them to do.
But the bottom line is that you’re not going to be able to just switch to using a different name and pronoun overnight for someone who you knew differently for as long as you’ve known your child. It’s important not to beat yourself up if you make mistakes or if you’re just not ready.
Keep talking to your child and make sure they know that you are trying to be as supportive as you can be and that this is new for you.
Hopefully, as time goes by this will get easier for all of you. In addition, you can speed up the process by getting help from someone who has been there.
It may be helpful for you to reach out to your local PFLAG branch and to find out what other support exists in your area for parents of transgender children.
Have questions or comments about supporting your transgender young adult child? Feel free to reach out in the comments below.
Join the discussion 12 Comments
Hi, thanks for your article, my daughter just tell me she want to be a boy, is something a little shocking but for be honest, I see this coming, what can I do to help her… (help him), she make me the request to change the pronoun… that part is kind a hard, is my only daughter, I have two more boys…
I’m confused, how I know she is right or just a face… I want support her… how old you have to be to really know… what if’s, come to my head… I need the advice of somebody who really understands… thanks again
Hi Ana, I’m sorry for the late reply. I didn’t see your comment was awaiting approval until now.
I can tell you care about your child and want to do your best for him. I think it’s important to know that it’s okay to feel how you feel, too. Your child has probably thought about this a LOT before coming to you but it’s all new to you. SO I hope you’ll take some time to grieve (preferably not in front of your child.)
It’s also okay to be worried about the future. Most kids don’t change their minds about transition, but some do. The good news is that a pronoun and name are not hormones or surgery. So if you let him experiment with this now, and he decides transition isn’t for him, he can go back to using girl name and pronoun and it’ll be okay. 🙂
Hope this helps!
Hi, I’m so glad I’ve found this. Would really appreciate some advice. I was recently called in to school for a meeting with my eldest daughter who is 15, and autistic. She was very upset and said that for the last 2 weeks she has wanted to be a boy. She’s now seeing a counsellor at school. I don’t truly believe that she is transgender, but I will support her and be there for her whilst she navigates this path. Thank you for this x
Hi Emma! It’s hard to give specific advice since I don’t know your child’s situation. I’m glad that you want to support them. If you go here: https://www.jackaori.com/my-child-is-transgender-now-what/ you can download my free guide to the first steps to take, and afterward feel free to message me to discuss what your next steps might be 🙂
Hi: I think your article was wonderful and I think it will be helpful for me and my transgender daughter. They want to be a boy and want us to refer to them as him and we’re working through that. We fully support them and will do whatever we can to help them. I just want to be a good supportive mom and any suggestions you can provide would be most welcome. Take care!
Hi Hazel! I’m so glad that you are working through what’s going on with your child. It will be a big step for you when you are ready to call him by his preferred pronouns.
Please let me know if you have specific questions. I also have a free Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/groups/supportnetworkforparentsoftransgenderkids ) that I hope you will find useful.
Thank you Jack! This was the most uplifting and freeing article I’ve read. As a mom of a 20 yr old transgender young adult I have struggled with this for years to the point of putting Bell’s Palsy on my face from all the stress. I was so excited that I had my beautiful Emily Grace ,my blue eyed blond girl that I traveled all over the world with. We have had so many life experiences together and I felt like this was a loss of some kind and I was in disbelief. After reading this article I have a whole new perspective and trying really hard to understand and support him as he transitions into being a trans male and navigates this path. Thank you Bobbi
Hi Bobbi! Thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad that you were able to gain a new perspective. 🙂 That’s why I do what I do.
If you haven’t already, check out my guide for parents at http://www.jackaori.com/my-child-is-transgender-now-what as well.
I read your article, and it did help a little bit. My daughter has always been a tomboy, but never talked about wanting to change her gender. As she grew older she didn’t want to wear girly clothes(which was fine with us). She was always confident in who she was until 2 years ago(when she met this friend of hers.). We are older parents, as she is our 4th child. Her friend’s mom is the same age as my oldest child. It felt like a 360 degree turn when she started hanging out with this family. When she graduated from high school she moved in with this family. That’s when everything changed. She cut her hair short and started to get piercings on her face. (I asked her if that is why she wanted to move out was to change herself and she keeps saying no, I wanted to feel independent). I have always told her no matter what we will always love you , but not agree with everything you are doing. She mentioned transgender to my daughter, but not to me or her dad.
She has not discussed anything with us. Her dad and I are having a very difficult time with this because she will not talk to us about anything. I am upset because as a mom, if one of my friend’s daughter started changing herself, I would talk to her and tell her that she needs to talk with her parents and let them have a part in this time of her life. That is not what we are getting. My daughter living over there gets approval for anything she does and she says I’m over 18 I can do whatever I want.
As stated in another comment about her daughter being autistic, my daughter is on the spectrum and has high anxiety. She started to see a psychiatrist, who put her on 3 different medications for her anxiety. (She was never on medications until she moved in with this family. I know her friend is on all kinds of meds too) This psychiatrist is someone who she just found online. She is very smart, but very immature for her age. As she grew older started to be very influenced by other people. I truly don’t believe she is transgender. I am trying my hardest to be supportive but she won’t talk to us about it. I called her and told her to please talk to us about this and not the family she is living with. She always says ok, but never follows through with it. I know you can’t fix this, but any insight as what could help us reach out her would be greatly appreciated.
I’m so sorry you’re going through this. This sounds like a really difficult situation where communication has completely broken down.
I think the first step is to just re-establish communication without the pressure of discussing her gender identity. She may be feeling like she’s not ready for this conversation and avoiding talking to you because of it. If she is willing to go out for coffee or come over just to catch up and talk about other things that are going on in each of your lives, that might be a good way to begin. It can be hard to avoid the elephant in the room, but first opening the lines of communication AT ALL will be important — without that you won’t get anywhere.
I have several parents of kids with autism who are transgender in my Facebook group who could probably also lend you additional insight as well as some videos there about active listening, which is a communication skill that might help you with your daughter’s situation. You can check us out at “Support Network for Parents of Transgender Kids” on Facebook if you’d like 🙂
Hi Jack, First thanks for this wonderful article. It’s very insightful and enlightening. My 21 yo biological daughter told me recently that he will be beginning transitioning next week. This was a bit of a shock to us as he’s always been extremely feminine even as a young child. He’s been diagnosed as bipolar, but hasn’t found a medication that works. He has eating disorder, has been suicidal multiple times in the past and been institutionalized. All that said, my concern is that he is looking for a way to be happy and this might be it. But it might not be. I suggested he live as and present as a man for several months before transitioning just to make certain that this is the right path. That upset him very much. At this point there is nothing I can do. He has to make his own choices. But I can’t wholeheartedly support what seems like a rash decision. Am I wrong? Is there anything wrong with waiting a few months?
Thanks for your question. This is a difficult situation, especially with your child’s other diagnoses.
A lot of times, things like being suicidal and having eating disorders can occur partially because of gender dysphoria, the feeling of your body not matching your gender.
I can understand your perspective that it seems like a rash decision, but it’s likely that he has thought about this for a long time and is just now expressing it to you. The good news here is that if he is medically transitioning, his doctors will talk it over with him. In some places he will have to see a therapist before transitioning — if that’s not the case where you live, his doctor will talk with him about why he wants to transition, what he thinks he will get out of it, etc, and that hopefully will help him make an informed decision.
I think what also may be helpful for you is to talk with him about his perspective. It can help to take a step back and use active listening to understand why he wants to transition, how long he’s thought about it, and things like that. Once he’s felt heard, it’s easier to express your concerns because he won’t be so defensive.
I hope this helps! Feel free to reach out if you have more questions.