When teens come out as transgender (male to female, female to male, or any variation of non-binary), many parents are confused and rattled.

    While your teen feels relief after sharing their inner experience, parents are left dizzy with questions and yearning for clarification. Some teens believe this is a one-time conversation and they’re shocked when parents want to further explore their news. Rest assured: This is positive, no matter how perplexed you feel right now. Transgenderism is not pathological and nothing is wrong with your child. In fact, this disclosure indicates the opposite!

    If you belong to the majority and your biological sex matches your gender (also called cisgender), this can be a particularly challenging concept to grasp. Chances are you never gave your gender much thought; for the cisgender parent, it feels bizarre that your child ever questioned the gender assigned at birth.

    Most cisgender people spend life assuming natal sex and gender line up for everyone.

    The Williams Institute at UCLA estimates at least 0.58 percent of the U.S. population [1] openly identifies as transgender. The numbers are likely higher, but many more transgender people don’t feel safe to share this minority identification. They remain hidden and avoid rejection or internalized transphobia, but they suffer in silence. The current understanding of gender conceptualizes it as innate, not always aligned with natal biological sex, and gender identity is not always binary. Non-binary means some people identify as genderless and others may express variations of stereotypically male or female identities, such as masculine of center lesbians. Note, however, that the flexibility inherent in seeing gender as a non-binary spectrum is not equal to your child’s identity being “a phase” and most transgender people, even those who seem hesitant at first, become even more certain of their transgender identity over time.

    You have a huge window of opportunity to make this a positive experience.

    No matter what, your child telling you about their transgender identity is a very good sign! Your child obviously feels safe enough in your relationship to share this secret, which they probably kept from the world for a long time. But it is crucial to handle this sensitive period with care. Until you have further conversations with your teen, investigate your own feelings.

    As your first step, your best option is to talk with others instead of your child. There will be plenty of time to explore further with them later. It makes a huge difference to initially reflect on your concerns, ask yourself the important questions below, investigate any negative internal reactions, sort your thoughts into a coherent narrative, and process with another trusted gender-knowledgeable adult. Then you will be ready for productive discussion with your child.

    Begin your exploration by asking yourself these questions.

    Make note of your own additional queries as you reflect. Dedicate time to write out your responses and share them with other transgender knowledgeable adults.

    1. How can I validate my teen? And how will affirming my child’s identity connect us?
    2. Does this worry me in some way? If so, what are my concerns?
    3. How will expressing my worries impact my child? Might my child misinterpret my worry for disapproval?
    4. How can I talk to my child without contradicting his/her/hir/vis/their [2] needs?
    5. Do I doubt my child? What makes it hard to trust them? What would it mean to me if they changed their mind later?
    6. What prevents me from embracing my child’s gender identity? Will my child’s expressions (e.g. clothing, haircuts, chosen name) actually harm anyone?
    7. In what ways have I internalized societal norms? How could it hurt my teen to impose these expectations on them?
    8. Am I resisting this change for personal reasons? Am I confusing my individual worries and reactions with the idea that “something is wrong?”
    9. How do I reframe this so it’s not a problem, but just a fact?
    10. Have I ever felt unaccepted by the majority? Can I use this shared experience to better understand my child’s process?

    It’s important to talk to at least one well-informed person – and preferably multiple people –  who are active in lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual or agender, and 2-spirited (LGBTQQIA2S a.k.a. LGBTQ+) communities.

    If no one lives nearby, seek virtual or email contacts through organizations on the frontlines of transgender advocacy. See [3] and [4] below.

    It takes a village to raise a child (and many villages need a mental health professional).

    Even if you don’t live in the Bay Area, many regions now have LGBTQ+ specific directories similar to Gaylesta.org. When you search for a mental health professional, actively avoid anyone who uses “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy,” as these practices are unethical, illegal for minors in California, and harmful to your child.

    For more immediate tips on responding to and talking with your teen, visit GenderSpectrum.org’s parenting and family page [3]. You can also find a helpful glossary of sexual orientation- and gender identity-related terms via PFLAG [4].

    elizabeth butler, PsyD has a private practice in Pleasanton, where she helps teens and adults in the LGBTQ+ communities overcome anxiety, improve their self-esteem and overall wellbeing, and heal long-term relationship conflict. If you’d like to learn more, call 925-421-6860 to schedule a free 15-minute initial phone consultation.

    [1] http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/How-Many-Adults-Identify-as-Transgender-in-the-United-States.pdf

    [2] https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/gender-pronouns/

    [3] https://www.genderspectrum.org/explore-topics/parenting-and-family/

    [4] https://www.pflag.org/glossary

    This post was featured on Gaylesta.org’s community blog.