When your child comes out to you as transgender or says that s/he is exploring their gender, you might be at a loss as to what to say or do. Many parents want to demonstrate how much they love and accept their child–no matter where that child’s journey takes them–but when it comes to transgender issues, they are afraid of making a mistake and tearing the child down instead of building them up. In addition, parents may have conflicted feelings about what their child is saying, making communication difficult. The best way to support your child is to use listening skills and other communication skills that allow him or her the space to be themselves while still giving you the ability to think and feel whatever you do upon hearing the news.
In general, using active listening skills is an important part of communication with children. Many parents unintentionally send their children the message of “You don’t really know what you’re talking about” by arguing with them about their perceptions on many issues. For example, a child may state, “This plate is too hot to touch,” and the parent may respond, “No it isn’t.” By switching to listening mode and really hearing what the child says, parents teach their children three things:
1) Your perceptions are accurate enough to be trusted.
2) You have the power to communicate your experience through words.
3) You are worth listening to.
These are messages that all children need to hear. If a child is transgender, it is even more important to build his or her self-esteem through listening because much of the world–and perhaps your child themselves–will throw doubt, confusion and denial your child’s way. Some children may not know there is any such thing as transgender or may think something is wrong with them. By listening to your child’s experiences, thoughts and feelings, you show them that their experiences are valid and that they are not quite as alien as they might have thought.
Listening can be difficult, however, because parents may be struggling to understand who their child really is, frightened of what this means for the child’s future, or uncertain how their child’s identity will affect the rest of the family. Here are some tips to help you listen to and validate your child’s experience.
Take a deep breath. When your child tells you that he or she is transgender, may be transgender or anything else related to gender identity, you may feel anxious, afraid or angry. You may think your child is going through a phase that you don’t like, want to sort out his or her confusion, or a bunch of other things that have to do with your perception of who your child is and your beliefs about transgender people. So if you feel uncomfortable with what your child is expressing to you, you may want to rush in with questions, advice or opinions. Resist the urge to do this. Instead, take a breath and let your child’s words sink in.
Repeat back to your child what you hear him or her saying. This serves a couple of different purposes. First, it lets your child know that you are listening. It also gives you a chance to make sure you understood what was said. Finally, it gives you a chance to hear your own perception of what your child said, which might help it sound less overwhelming to you.
Don’t be afraid to show emotion. While you want to focus on listening and understanding where your child is coming from, it’s okay if your voice trembles or you show emotion of your own. It won’t make your child think you don’t accept him or her. It’ll just show that you’re grappling with emotions over this too. Sometimes that can help open up a dialog.
Make sure your child has finished saying what he or she wants to say before you respond. Continue using listening skills until your child has nothing further to say about the topic. Then you can share your feelings.
Be both honest and respectful. It’s okay to tell your child that you have concerns or that you aren’t feeling comfortable. Keep the focus on these feelings being your feelings–use “I” statements and avoid accusations.
Allow your child–and yourself–the space to express negative feelings as well as positive ones. Don’t worry if you or your child expresses anger or sadness when talking about transition. It won’t ruin the relationship. In some cases, it may actually be the beginning of an authentic relationship with your children.
For many parents, it’s not easy to hear that their child is struggling with gender identity issues. Although in some ways it is similar to other parenting issues–it isn’t easy to deal with many issues that you might not agree with your child on as he or she gets older–gender identity runs so deeply within us that both parents and children find it particularly hard to talk about. It may be difficult to stay calm and composed, but the good news is you don’t have to. If you make the best effort you can to listen honestly to your child’s experience and feelings and to communicate about the issue, you can get to a place where you can be a supportive influence as your child makes this journey.
If you need one-one-one help with handling your child’s transition or with helping your parents accept your transition, I am now offering 30 minute sessions for $25. Contact me for more details.