Parents of children who are transgender, gender fluid or gender questioning are on their own journey of acceptance. Each parent approaches this journey in a different way depending on culture, family values, religious beliefs and understanding of the experience.
Even for the most accepting of parents, the experience of walking with a child through a gender-questioning journey is a challenge. There are many unexpected hurdles along the way, and no one knows what the outcome will be. This creates a sense of anxiety and helplessness in parents. Many parents have a natural reaction to fix things or help to make a situation better, but in this case, nothing a parent does will ultimately make things return to a state of “normal”.
A common reaction for parents of children who start to question their gender is grief. Many parents grieve the loss of an imagined future. Things like not walking their daughter down the aisle or not becoming grandparents start to feel important. Some parents jump to that state of grief rather quickly. Their daughter may say that she thinks she might like other girls, and parents jump all the way to a dark conclusion.
For parents who know that their child may transition genders, there is a need for normalizing the experience of sitting with the unknown. There’s no way to predict what will happen next, so parents must start to be okay with things they can’t predict. Most parents are afraid of the unknown. They worry about all of the many things that could go wrong. They live with the worry that the unknown is terrible. It is also important to make space for the idea that it might not be. What if it’s not terrible? What if the unknown is beautiful – challenging yet wonderful?
It is important to take into account parents’ often limited understanding and background knowledge of issues related to gender identity and expression. Children today are learning about gender in a post-binary world. They have an expansive vocabulary and deep understanding of gender that generations before them have not learned. Some languages don’t yet have words for many of these topics, so for some families this concept is truly foreign. Children may not understand this difference and may interpret parents’ comments or questions as hurtful or insensitive.
Another area where some parents struggle is identifying what is appropriate to share about their child and what should remain private. Parents may seek for support from others, or may wish to write about their journey on social media or blogs. It is important to remember that this story is a child’s story to tell. Children need confidentiality and support, and may not want their information posted publicly for the world (or people they know) to read.
Discipline with teens who are gender questioning is tricky. Parents often struggle to discipline their child who is going through this experience. It can be a challenge not to throw all of the rules out the window in order to accommodate the child’s emotional fragility. Teens and pre-teens often exacerbate this dilemma with claims that any discipline is related to their gender questioning, such as, “You’re only making me do this because I’m queer.”
It is normal for parents and teens to have these challenges outside of a gender questioning experience. Parents and teens argue and debate about discipline. Parents should ask themselves if this debate would happen with any child, or if it’s related to the challenges of the gender questioning experience.
Ultimately, this journey for children runs parallel to a journey for parents. Parents create a vision of their child when he is born, and if a child starts to question his gender expression, it can turn the whole world upside down. Parents should work to be accepting of their child, but also know that it is completely normal to struggle alongside him. And most importantly, parents should maintain hope that their child’s future, and their family’s future, will be challenging yet beautiful.