Coming out as transgender at any stage of life has its challenges. Most people I work with have kept this aspect of their identity under wraps for months, years—even decades. Many try to do as much as they can to present themselves as leading a “normal” life so that others will never catch wind of the fact that they’re wrestling with issues related to gender identity deep down. And that wrestling match gets brutal at times.
In my experience working with transgender individuals, coming out to one’s children can be one of the scariest obstacles to face. As with most situations in which parents must show unprecedented levels of vulnerability to their children, transgender parents often worry about how the personal information they share with their children will impact their well-being. Will their child stop loving them? Will their child be emotionally scarred? Will they be stopped from having a relationship with their child? Will my transition confuse themselves about their own identity or cause them to be transgender?
Understandably, most kids assume that if they know their father as “dad” and their mother as “mom,” these identities will remain permanent. Memories will fade, new memories must be made But the good news is that children are incredibly adaptable, and their primary concern is to be assured that their parents love them unconditionally.
So, no: there isn’t a sure-fire way to ensure that your children won’t have a difficult time when you have the talk. But there are five things to keep in mind that can make that talk, and the whole process, slightly easier on everyone:
1. Their age is important.
At different periods of development, we interpret and understand information based on experience, education and various other psychological factors. For example, if your child is under 10 years old (maturity varies with each child) they will probably understand something as simple as, “I was born with a boy’s body, but a girl’s brain and I’m going to change my outside to match my inside.” They will likely trust that whatever mom and dad say is “right” actually is right, and will go with it.
Sure, there will be a few questions. But I like to say that in most cases, kids haven’t been tainted by our cynical society yet.
If your child is a teenager, however, they will probably push back with a little more force—and will probably ask the question, “Why are you doing this to me?” This period of time is when most kids experience a concept called “adolescent egocentrism”—the feeling that the world revolves around them. They are constantly comparing how they are like and unlike other people, and generally want to just fit in. If mom says she’s a man and will soon begin masculinizing, it can be perceived as embarrassing for teens because most moms don’t look masculine.
2. You can play a role in their emotional resilience.
Keep in mind that all kids want to know that they are loved, that limits will be set to keep them safe, that resources will be provided when needed, that they are respected by caregivers, that they will be OK even if they are experiencing a difficult situation, and that it is acceptable for them to express fears or concerns when they need to.
Obviously, most children don’t explicitly articulate any of these things. But deep down, these gestures of parental love are essential, and it’s important to make sure they are considered in order to raise and support a child who can be resilient—who can cultivate an ability to work through difficult, confusing and painful circumstances.
3. Timing matters.
Because this is usually new information for your child to process, it’s vital to allow them time to ask questions, be confused, get angry and approach you for support. It can be grueling because you are playing a dual-role (which parents often do, but this is exceptional): you’re sharing tough information and making yourself very vulnerable, while simultaneously trying to make sure to take care of your child’s needs after hearing the information.
As strange as it sounds, this is a situation in which it really can’t be about you! Give them the weekend to be confused. Don’t do things like tell them at Thanksgiving dinner. Make sure there is an adult in your and your child’s life (other than you) that understands that they’ll likely need support. Then be certain that your child is comfortable with and has access to that person. Finally, if there is another parent involved, do your best to show a united front. Your kids will often look to the cisgender parent for guidance, and to serve as a barometer for their own feelings.
4. Offering diverse forms of support is key.
As mentioned above, some kids get angry when presented with this probably shocking information. Allow whatever emotions they are feeling to come to the surface, and try to avoid minimizing (e.g. reassuring them that “Nothing is going to change.”). Similarly, try to avoid intellectualizing the feelings by giving them a biology lesson. Remember how long it took YOU to accept this about yourself—and give your kids a grace period.
If you’ve done too good of a job “hiding” your identity, your child will be even more shocked with the news, and may wonder if there is anything else about their relationship with you that is going to change. They may also ask whether this will happen to them. If your child is of school age, enlist support at school. It’s also a great idea to develop a support network and find other transgender parents whose kids might be farther along than yours are. The Internet is a good place to find these resources.
5. Accepting the challenges will help both you and your children adjust.
Expecting everything to feel OK (or “the same”) immediately is bound to exacerbate any discomfort that you are feeling about coming out to your kids, and this experience at large. Being realistic, and acknowledging the importance of patience, is bound to make your kid feel more seen and heard, and for you to feel less pressure to “be normal.”
Recognizing the power of accepting your situation’s difficult aspects is incredibly liberating. Owning the challenges, whatever they are, will help give you more space for everyone to process complex emotions and thoughts, and to develop resilience in the process.