As a therapist who specializes in gender and queer topics, it is common for me to meet with parents of clients and hear outpourings of love and support for their queer kids and teens, while also identifying anxiety and confusion about how their identities are being expressed. I usually hear things like:
“My kid’s gender identity and presentation are really fluid right now, and I get nervous that they’re going to be bullied at school.”
“I don’t really understand why my son wants to wear skirts or paint his nails if he’s sure that he’s not a girl.”
“Our teen says they have chest dysphoria and want top-surgery, but isn’t that something only trans men want, not nonbinary individuals?”
What I hear is that they really want to show up for their kids, but they don’t always know how and they don’t always feel comfortable doing so. Here are some steps I walk parents through as they learn how to fully and genuinely celebrate their child’s identity.
None of us are exempt from messages about what is gender and who is doing it “correctly.” Take time to think about where you got these messages growing up. Folks can usually identify a moment when their parent gave a disapproving look when they picked out a princess Halloween costume. Perhaps they were misgendered after getting a haircut they were really excited about. Maybe it wasn’t safe or comfortable for “boys to cry or like the color pink.” Sometimes we have to reckon with really old wounds before we can genuinely support our kids. That work is painful but healing, and the real payoff is that it helps provide us freedom and protection from passing along the same messages to our own kids.
It is important for parents to model that discussions about identity are safe and ongoing. This can look like a discussion over dinner about how we each think about gender, norms we were raised with, and ways that your clothing and appearance reflect that. It can also look like us identifying the moments when seeing someone step out of a gender norm feels good or intriguing. Drag shows are often catalysts for conversations about how we’re all performing gender and that there is no one “right” way to do it. Folks do not have to identify as transgender to enjoy wearing new clothing or having a new haircut.
We best support our kids when we listen and believe them when they tell us who they are. It’s important to create space organically and regularly for us to talk as a family about how we identify and the ways that those identities evolve and change over time. Sometimes those identities do not match the clothing, hair, and accessories we are used to. Sit with that feeling, identify it as a norm you’ve lived with for a really long time, and then take steps to practice a new way of approaching an old discomfort. And practice, practice, practice those pronouns away from your child, even if they change over time.
Parents naturally want to “fix” problems for their kids and make life as painless as possible. For gender-expansive youth, the reality is there might be negative feedback from loved ones or strangers. They’re making the world a more colorful and accepting place, and that is met with pushback. When this happens, ask your child if they want you to support them by advocating on their behalf or standing back while they advocate for themself. This builds resilience and autonomy, and it shows our kids that we’re not afraid to fight for them, if needed. Sometimes this means testifying on your child’s behalf at your state legislature against anti-trans bills, and sometimes it means letting your teen have a conversation alone with their family member about why it hurts when their pronouns aren’t used. Take your kid’s lead and trust their timing and preferences.
Kids and teens usually watch our actions more than listen to our words, and nothing says “I love and celebrate you” like breaking a gender norm yourself. Dad, let your kiddo paint your nails. Mom, let’s try out a temporary hair dye. These actions are often just as cathartic and freeing for us as they are for our kids. It can feel really good to step out of the box.
At a time when being queer feels particularly targeted by politicians and some state legislatures, transgender and gender-expansive kids and teens are nonetheless paving the way for a more colorful, fluid future. Look to your own in-house activist for guidance on how to also do this work.
Larissa Godfrey-Smith, LPC
Larissa received her Bachelor’s degree from University of Houston-Downtown and her Master’s in Clinical Psychology from University of Houston-Clear Lake. She works with a diverse population in mental health settings, including transgender adults and children, sexual minorities, individuals with mood disorders, body-focused repetitive behaviors like trichotillomania, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and adults living with HIV.
Larissa spent the first 5 years of her career at one of the nation’s largest LGBTQIA+ counseling centers. She takes great pride in providing the highest level of queer-informed care with a primary goal of ensuring LGBTQIA+ Washingtonians have a space for therapy where they don’t have to explain their sexuality or relationship style, worry about being misgendered, or “teach” their therapist about the community.
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