Do you know how you would respond as a parent if your teenager came out to you as transgender or nonbinary? For many parents, that feels like a thought experiment—maybe you’ve seen social media posts about genderfluid kids, but it doesn’t seem like anything you expect to hear from your child. Or maybe you’re already in that situation, feeling the huge trust that your teen has shown by sharing their truth with you, and you’re worried about whether you’re handling it correctly.
This week is Transgender Awareness Week, culminating in Transgender Day of Remembrance; it’s a sobering reminder that trans and NB people are targeted for violence and discrimination, and vulnerable to depression and suicide at alarming rates.
That’s especially true for younger people, who have little control over their living situation. And given that 20-40% of the homeless youth population is gay or transgender (while gay and trans teens are only 5-10% of the total youth population), it’s clear that teens have a tremendous amount to lose by coming out.
Family and peer acceptance of transgender and nonbinary teens is a literal matter of life and death: While trans and NB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than cisgender youth, one study showed that acceptance from at least one adult and/or from a peer reduces a trans or NB teen’s likelihood of attempting suicide by a third. Parental support reduces depression and anxiety, while lack of support and acceptance increases them.
If you’re reading this, you probably care very much about supporting your teen in their journey of self-discovery and making them feel loved and accepted. But you might be struggling to figure out how, exactly, to do that. You might feel overwhelmed, confused, or ill-informed and not really know where to start with any of this. You might be afraid of “doing it wrong” or being a bad parent.
Good news: The fact that you want to do right by your child and learn more is the most important step. You might make mistakes, and you might not handle everything perfectly, but if you’re willing to put in the work and own those mistakes, your trans or NB teen is already better off because of it.
Here are some simple but impactful places to start practicing loving acceptance for your teen and their gender discovery:
- Take them seriously. Gender can be fluid, and where your teen is now may not be where they are in a few years—or they might be. That doesn’t mean their experience isn’t real or valid and worthy of support. Recognize that this is a journey for them, not a “phase” or something they’re doing for attention.
- Respect their name and pronouns. You may have agonized for months about what to name your baby when you were expecting, and it may hurt that your child now wants to use a new name. Understand that this is an important part of accepting who they are, and that it’s often scary and vulnerable for a trans/NB teen to ask people to use a different name or pronouns. Simply honoring that change can make a huge difference in their happiness and mental health.
- Show them you’re trying to learn. Even if you consider yourself pretty progressive and informed about LGBTQIA+ concerns, letting your child see that you’re putting time and energy into learning more about transgender and nonbinary life shows that you care about their safety and comfort.
- Offer professional support. Your teen might be struggling right now. They could be having gender dysphoria or other body image issues, they could be going through depression or anxiety, they might be getting bullied at school. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions about how they’re doing, and offer to find a trans-informed therapist or a gender support group for them if they would like more help. Neither you nor your child have to handle this transition alone.
- Go beyond acceptance to celebration. Gender identity, like sexual orientation, is a huge part of any person’s identity, and embracing who they are is as exciting and joyful for your teen as it is scary and stressful. You can help them enjoy this wonderful time by celebrating it with them. Offer to take them to their first Pride event, or to take them clothes shopping, or to learn new grooming techniques. Get excited with them over all their baby steps! You’re showing them that they can trust you and confide in you and turn to you, and it’s not only safe to do so, but something they can feel great about.
There are many helpful books, websites, and groups out there, and we’ve listed some of them on our ever-growing Resources page. Looking for a trans-informed therapist to work with your teen, or to talk to yourself? Contact us about our therapy services—we specialize in LGBTQIA+ clients’ concerns.
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