Parenting a Transgender teen featured image

It’s Probably Not “Just a Phase”

Being a parent is awesome. And scary. Every day brings something different and there’s no blueprint to follow. Whether it’s a tumble off their bike, a favorite t-shirt that won’t come off for weeks, or a freshly dyed head of green hair, there’s always something new to navigate. It’s not always easy and sometimes we can find some helpful information or advice from a friend to guide us through when needed.

Several years ago, my son had a full head of green hair…and came out as transgender. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Neither did I.

When it comes to helping your transgender child transition and flourish, you probably won’t get any helpful advice from a friend, but there’s no shortage of educational material out there. There’s a list of additional resources at the end of this article as well. And since my Content Manager gets grumpy if he has to proofread anything over 1,500 words, I’m just going to share a few of the most frequent questions I get asked.

How did you navigate your child coming out as transgender?

I’m certainly not the poster boy for what a traditional dad looks like, but I’d like to think I’m a pretty nurturing and progressive parent. I’ve also had the added experience of knowing several transgender men and women over the years. However, I still was not prepared for the realization that my child was transgender. It was hard to unpack those thoughts and feelings in the beginning, especially when I was trying to remain calm and cool for my son so that he would not shut down the line of communication that was just beginning to open. 

Like any parent looking to diagnose their kids these days, I turned to the one true source of factual information – the internet! I began reading and researching everything I could find on the web about the transgender community, their terminology, medical procedures, therapy, etc… 

Unfortunately, it seemed like most of what I found pointed to two main ways of responding to your child coming out: waving a rainbow flag or sending them to conversion therapy. I’m not much of a flag-waver and conversion therapy (for anything) sounds like it’s right out of a Nazi handbook. Hard pass. So, I did what I always do when faced with a challenge and just tried to go about my daily business as if everything was normal. 

While it appeared on the outside to most people that I was accepting my child the “right way,” there was a whole lot of fear going on behind the scenes. I experienced three distinct stages of fear, which seem to be common among other parents of LGBTQ+ kids:

  1. Initially, my first thought was that it was “just a phase” that was getting amplified by the attention being drawn to transgender teens on social media. I was afraid that my child was being heavily influenced by other people’s opinions and lifestyles. This is one of the most common misconceptions around kids that come out.
  2. However, once it was clear to me that this was no “phase,” my fear shifted to what our family and friends might think about us as parents. That is not particularly easy for me to admit, but it’s something that naturally goes through the mind of most parents when their child does something to draw attention to them in a big way (like that mohawk that many of us had to have in sixth grade).
  3. After choking back my ego and realizing it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks, only that my child feels loved and supported, I came to the final stage of fear…the fear that they will be mistreated, shunned, and possibly even harmed for who they are. It sounds harsh when you read those words, but that’s the sad reality of the world we live in right now. As parents, our number one job is to protect our kids from harm, so this final stage of fear was a big one (and I still struggle with it sometimes).
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What were the signs, if any?

Each transgender kid is on their own journey, just like the rest of us. Sometimes there are obvious signs and sometimes the signals are more subtle. They could manifest at the age of 17, or at the age of 5. There’s no standard set of criteria or timeline, no matter how much we (as parents) wish there was. 

The important thing is that you always try to keep an open line of communication with them. For my son there weren’t really any early signs but, in hindsight, lots of micro-masculine ones in the 12-16 months leading up to his moment of truth. Short haircuts, asking friends to call him by a male nickname, oversized t-shirts, baggy pants, boxer shorts, rejection of anything pink, boy-like mannerisms, and many others. In the end, having earlier signs wouldn’t have changed the outcome and it’s important not to spend time in the past. 

Focus your energy and attention on what’s in front of you, today.

Are there obvious differences between raising a cis teen and a trans teen?

The first and most obvious question for parents is likely: are there obvious differences between raising a cis teen and a trans teen?

Yes and no. It really depends on your teen and how they prefer to be treated. My son prefers to only be treated as the super rad, 16-year-old boy that he is, and he rarely tells anybody that he is transgender. This is obviously much easier now that he has been on this journey for many years and easily passes for a young man. I’ll never forget those instances in the beginning though when we would be at a restaurant and the server would refer to him as “sir” or “dude” and his smile would light up the whole room.

That doesn’t mean that we still don’t have our share of things to navigate differently than cis teens and their parents, they’re just usually unnoticeable to others. For example, he hasn’t been able to participate in team sports over the years. And then there’s the many different doctors and therapists we’ve visited, his self-administered testosterone shots every other week, and the extremely long (and ridiculous) process we went through to get his name legally changed.

In general, though, he’s just like any other teenage boy. His feet stink, his room is a mess, and his answer to most questions is something that closely resembles a grunt.

What’s the best way to support them?

Most importantly, make sure you’re supported first! Transgender kids and teens, like all children, fare much better in life with love and support from their parents. Trans kids face a world in which they are often misunderstood. From the ultra-conservative pulpit bullies to politicians of the past and present, they have to listen to hate speech that says they don’t matter and shouldn’t be allowed to be themselves. 

Having a safe place to retreat to, in the loving arms of an understanding parent is critical for these kids. They need someone to talk to, someone to give them hope that it will get better, and someone who stands up for their rights. But never forget, as parents, we have tears and fears of our own that we often don’t show our child and we need support too. A supported parent has more emotional resources and is better equipped to care for their child.

Now, for those of you that like lists, here’s some easy ways to support your transgender child:

  • Always use their preferred name and pronouns. Always. If you slip up, just correct yourself and move on.
  • Become a researcher. Learn everything you can about supporting your trans child. Find the best and most experienced LGBTQ+ doctors and therapists in your area. Find support organizations in your area you can rely on for help and information when you need it. Don’t stop learning.
  • Be your child’s biggest advocate – call out transphobic behavior when you see it and ask that others respect your child’s identity.
  • Reach out to your child’s school guidance counselor and ask them to support and affirm your child.
  • Encourage your child to stand up for themselves (when it is safe).
  • Most importantly, constantly remind your child that they have your unconditional love and support.

Additional resources:

GLAAD

GLAAD rewrites the script for LGBTQ acceptance. As a dynamic media force, GLAAD tackles tough issues to shape the narrative and provoke dialogue that leads to cultural change. GLAAD protects all that has been accomplished and creates a world where everyone can live the life they love.


PFLAG

PFLAG is the first and largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies. With over 400 chapters and 200,000 members and supporters crossing multiple generations of families in major urban centers, small cities, and rural areas across America, PFLAG is committed to creating a world where diversity is celebrated and all people are respected, valued, and affirmed. 


National Center for Transgender Equality

NCTE was founded in 2003 by transgender activists who recognized the urgent need for policy change to advance transgender equality. With a committed board of directors, a volunteer staff of one, and donated office space, we set out to accomplish what no one had yet done: provide a powerful transgender advocacy presence in Washington, DC.

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