Irwin Krieger, LCSW, is a counselor in New Haven, CT who works regularly with transgender teens and their families. In addition to his clinical work, he is also the author of “Helping Your Transgender Teen“, an excellent guide for parents and families of transgender teens.
Irwin has written two excellent short pieces for this blog, one of which I will be sharing today. This post looks at some feelings parents may encounter when discovering their teen is transgender, and how to talk to them about what they’ve just shared with you (or shared with you a long time ago, if you feel you haven’t had a good discussion with them.) It’s a simple, eloquent, thought-provoking entry, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did:
For most parents, hearing that your teen is transgender comes as quite a shock. Parents feel confused about what their teen is saying, have a hard time believing it could be true, and fear that their child is making a terrible mistake that will lead to a life of hardship and regret. Teens feel hurt and angry when their parents react this way. They want their parents to support and accept them. In many families, the discussion breaks down at this point. If this has happened in your family, how can you turn things around?
Let your teen know that you’re sorry your first response was hurtful, and that you want to understand more about him or her. Here are some questions you can ask to get the discussion going. Ask your questions in a spirit of curiosity, without implying criticism or disbelief. Keep an open mind about the validity and meaning of your teen’s inner experience. Listen, ask for more detail, be patient, be flexible in your thinking.
- When did you first begin to question your gender identity?
- Do you feel sure now, or are you still questioning?
- How did you fit in with girls and boys when you were younger?
- How do you feel about the male or female aspects of your body?
- How do you feel about the changes to your body that come with puberty?
- How do you feel when people view you as female or male?
- Who have you talked to about this so far and how have they responded?
- Would you like to share this information with other family members?
- Do you want to let people know at school? In our neighborhood?
It is extremely important to let your teen know you are taking this discussion seriously, and that you will love and accept your teen even if you are uneasy about what you are learning. A study by the Family Acceptance Project has shown that LBGT teens whose families reject them are at high risk of depression, suicide, self-harm and addiction. Keep this in mind if you are having difficulty responding supportively. It’s OK to be afraid or uncertain, but it’s not OK to insult or reject your child.
Most teenagers who come to see me are impatient to start hormones. They have been thinking about gender identity and doing research on the web for a long time. I let these teens know that their parents need some time to catch up. A social transition (trying out a new name and presentation in the gender the teen feels is right for him or her) is a fully reversible step that can help you and your teen gain more clarity about his or her gender identity.
It may scare you to think about your child going to school in a new gender role, but keep in mind that up until now your child has felt all wrong in the gender role he or she has been living. This step can be a great relief for your teen, even if some of the responses from peers are unkind. The school is responsible to make the environment safe for all students, regardless of gender identity or gender presentation. If you conclude that the environment is truly unsafe for a social transition, then it is best to look for an alternative.