The moment we become parents, we start caring about someone in a way we never have, at a depth we've never known, and we do all this more unselfishly and more fearfully than we ever thought possible. When they're born, we cross our fingers hoping for "just normal, that's all I want." And a lot of people get “normal,” more or less.
Or do they? Because what is “normal,” anyhow? Sometimes children are born with asthma or bad vision or a funky cowlick in their hair. Sure, as parents, we didn’t wish for these things. But all combined, these are the unique characteristics that form the beautiful, intricate wallpaper of who they are.
Sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual identification shouldn’t be treated differently than the funky cowlick — after all, they’re just another section of your child’s human wallpaper. But they are treated differently. Because we don't talk about them too much, do we? But consider this: If your child has come to the realization that they’re transgender, as hard as that is for you, imagine how difficult it is for your child.
Kids who go through this process of discovery and realization that they're different are often confused. They're embarking down an unknown path, and they sometimes reach for an idea that, at first, explains a part of who they are like, "I'm a girl who likes girls, so I must be a lesbian." Later, they may realize, "Actually, I know I'm not a girl." This isn't silliness or peer pressure. This is your child sorting out their sexuality, and being there for a transgender child is the same as being there for any child.
Most of us believe in telling our kids we love them and that we'll love them whatever they discover about themselves along the way. As parents, our job is to guide and protect them, not tell them who they are. Whether it’s her makeup (or his), their clothing, whom they date—it’s about them, not us.
This is Transgender Awareness Week. So, to commemorate this important week, here are some suggestions for parents struggling to talk with a child who has revealed they’re transgender:
- Let them drive the conversation. Talk as much or as little as they want.
- Listen. Be happy they’re talking, no matter how painful the subject matter might be. Don’t turn the focus onto you and your issues.
- Avoid telling them they’re wrong or confused.
- Get them counseling when they're ready. We all need confidential help now and then.
- When they start dressing in the “wrong” clothes, you might offer them some subtle guidance, but avoid being controlling.
- Consider counseling for yourself.
- Talk about how proud you are of their bravery in being who they are, not an easy task for any of us. Be proud of yourself for raising a great kid.
- DO NOT kick them out — literally or figuratively (by shutting them out). Even if you would never in a million years kick them out, they’ll still need reassurance that they’re safe with you.
This is complicated. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to say “he” when you’re supposed to say “she.” But the fact that you’re talking — openly, honestly, non-judgmentally — will help your children further understand their true selves so they can live their best lives. And really, isn’t that the goal?
Author and speaker Steven Ing, MFT believes in a novel approach to sexuality: Let’s learn how to proactively manage our sexuality. Intelligently. Tweet @StevenIngMFT or email him at askING@stevening.com with ideas for future columns.
Column originally appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal.