Family, Self

6 Life Lessons I Learned From My Son About Raising Happy, Healthy Transgender Children

Photo: courtesy of the author
 How Parents Of Transgender Children, Youth & Teens Can Support Their Kids Through The Gender Transition Process

When my child came to me at the age of four and said that he felt he was living his life as a lie, I was shocked.

I wasn't shocked by the notion that my child preferred toys marketed mostly to boys, had more boy friends and wanted to shop in the boys’ section at the store — those were all things I had already watched evolving over time.

What shocked me was how insightful and brave my child was for coming to me with something so profound — the self-awareness he felt about his transgender identity.

I was impressed by his ability to understand that, in his heart and his brain, something wasn't making sense. And this something — the gender identity assigned to him at birth based on his biological anatomy — was causing him great stress.

Fortunately, I already knew it is possible for kids to recognize themselves as transgender.

There are, by some accounts, 150,000 transgender teenagers ages 13 to 17 years old in the United States today.

RELATED: How Many Genders Are There — And Why Does Talking About The Spectrum Of Identity Matter So Much?

Having a Master’s Degree in a field of psychology, I was familiar with the concept. But as a mom, I was also scared.

I was about to jump into deep, uncharted waters with no life vest to put on if the waves got dicey ... or so I thought.

The truth is, there are so many parts of raising children that are scary and unknown.

Finding out I had a transgender child was only one of many unexpected turns in my parenting journey.

Even before this was out and my child chose to live as his true self, I was in a constant struggle to do better and be better as a parent. Every day was a new challenge facing something I hadn't experienced before.

As parents, we strive to learn from each day to the next with one goal in mind: To safely raise our kids to be happy and healthy.

My child being trans doesn't change the kind of life I want for my kids. It just changes the route we might take to get there.

I do it all in hopes that one day my support and love will keep my kid safe from harm. Whether it be harm from others, or harm to himself.

photo courtesy of the author

RELATED: Exactly What To Do If Your Kid Comes Out As Transgender

A study by the Williams Institute and the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention reports that the combined suicide rate among trans men and women is an overwhelming 41 percent.

In addition, the report explains, "Analysis of other demographic variables found prevalence of suicide attempts was highest among those who are younger (18 to 24: 45%), multiracial (54%) and American Indian or Alaska Native (56%), have lower levels of educational attainment (high school or less: 48-49%), and have lower annual household income (less than $10,000: 54%)."

The good news is that the findings of another study — titled "Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities" and published in the journal Pediatrics — confirm that "[socially] transitioned transgender children, that is, who identify as the gender 'opposite' their natal sex and are supported to live openly as that gender ... have developmentally normative levels of depression and only minimal elevations in anxiety, suggesting that psychopathology is not inevitable within this group."

And researchers who conducted another study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health found that "Transgender youth who were able to use their chosen names in multiple contexts reported fewer depressive symptoms and less suicidal ideation and behavior. For transgender youth who choose a name different from the name given at birth, use of their chosen name in multiple contexts appears to affirm their gender identity and lower mental health risks known to be high in this group."

"Because first names are often gender-specific," they explain, "chosen name use is part of the social transition process to align one's gender presentation with one's gender identity. This gender social transition process, including changing first names, pronouns, hair, and clothing, is associated with better mental health among transgender youth."

In other words, one factor that drastically reduces the rate of death by suicide for trans children is family support, especially at home.

Knowing that, I could not see any other option than allowing my child guide me to a place where he felt safe.

These scary stats lurk in the back of my mind every single day, as does potential influence my own home could have on my child.

Because of that, there are some parts of our journey that I not only found necessary, but universal for most families of trans kids striving to keep their kids alive. And you might be surprised to learn that doing so isn't all that different from raising any other child!

Here are 6 life lessons I've learned so far on my parenting journey raising a transgender child.

1. Follow their lead.

In the first weeks after my son came out, he wanted to make some very drastic changes, very quickly.

He wanted a haircut and a name change. Within weeks, he asked everyone to use male pronouns to address him because, after all, "I'm a boy, so why do you keep calling me 'she'?"

As a parent, my first thought was to wait, to set boundaries and limits as to how we would proceed because that's what we are supposed to do as parents, right? Give our kids enough independence to find themselves, but within limits and with guidance and clear rules.

But, in this situation, experts highly discouraged me from setting up walls and giving my child a set of do's and don'ts.

Not only would I be sending my child a message that my love has limits, I would be "allowing" him to live his life on my terms, not his.

While I am still his parent, I am not him. I can't be the one to decide how he truly feels inside.

2. When your transgender kid asks you to make superficial changes, do it.

As a parent of a young child, everything we have done as part of his social transition was done with a lot of thought, reading and research on my part. I did not go into any change lightly because I was worried that this might be a phase (mainly because the overwhelming majority of people who I chose to share the news with in the beginning insisted this must be a phase).

But as we made one adjustment and then another, I watched my son flourish. I watched him blossom and grow right before my eyes in a matter of weeks.

My son went from a very angry, bitter and isolated kid to an outgoing, friendly and social kid seemingly overnight.

Any physical or language requests he chose at his current age are all things that can be reversed if something were to change later: words, clothes, and hair. That's all it took for my child to go from a child that was existing in misery to one that was growing and living with confidence and self-worth he never had before.

photo by Amanda Marscin

RELATED: What It Feels Like To Have (And Love!) A Transgender Son

3. Talk to your other kids but don't make it a "thing."

I have three kids. So when my son started requesting name and pronoun changes, it was time for me to start discussing with his siblings what was going on.

I spoke with a therapist who highly recommended short, simple responses and then changing the subject to something less intense (like what they want for lunch/dinner). I sat down with my kids and had one conversation with each of them one-on-one where I let them ask questions, share concerns, and be open and honest with me about their feelings in a safe space.

But after that, I didn't make it a "thing" to dwell on. If something came up I would simply remind them that this is just the way it is.

"He just feels better this way and it's important to feel good about yourself, right? Now, what do you guys want for dinner?"

4. Do not intentionally misgender your child, and if you make a mistake, apologize.

Using someone's gender identity as a weapon against them is not only cruel, it's immensely damaging.

Accidents happen, but intentional misuse of someone's pronouns or name is just flat-out abusive. Don't do that. And don't let anyone else do that to your kid, either.

When children get to the point of sharing and insisting on making a transformation, it's something they've been thinking about for a long time. Making an immediate effort to comply shows your child you are listening.

Pronouns are just words, albeit powerful ones. And remember, these words are something you can always change back if you need to, should your child ask you to.

Changing your language is a process. It takes thought and constant self-reminders. Especially if you are like me and have nicknames for your kids based on their gender (ie: "the girls").

I think the most frustrating part for my son during his social transition was when someone would use the wrong pronoun or call him by his birth name. He would get instantly angry, shout a correction and remind them he is not "she".

Once I realized how much pain a simple word could bring my child I made a conscious effort to think before I spoke — but that didn't mean I didn't make mistakes along the way. I absolutely did. On rare occasions, I still make mistakes.

When I do make a mistake, I immediately apologize and let my son know it was an accident and tell him I will try harder.

Ultimately, I want him to know that I hear him. I see him. I understand this hurts and I'm trying my absolute best to make sure I'm doing everything I can to support and affirm him.

RELATED: What Is Gender Dysphoria & How Does It Affect People Who Are — And Are Not — Transgender?

5. Find them a therapist ... or don't.

If you or your child are struggling with any part of this, find someone who is qualified to help. Let a professional give you the tools to guide your understanding of what is going on with your child. Nobody has to do this alone.

Many professionals also have referrals to local support and advocacy groups that you may find yourself needing at some point. National associations like PFLAG and GLADD are a great place to start making connections that you can use utilize to find more local, personal connections, should you need them.

That being said, if you are confident that your child is not experiencing emotional distress and you are certain you are equipped with the knowledge to support your child in the safest and healthiest way, therapy is not a requirement.

Remember, your child is not mentally ill. Don't let anyone, not even a therapist, convince you that being transgender is an issue that can be "fixed".

6. Don't doubt yourself.

It hurts my heart to even say this, but unless your family is completely open and supportive, chances are you're going to have one (if not more) person in your life who simply doesn't understand or refuses to believe that this is your child’s reality.

Some people will try anything to convince you that you're making bad or wrong choices on behalf of your child.

Any supportive parent of a trans child will tell you that being supportive, loving and accepting their child is the easy part (even if the process of getting there might not always be).

The hardest part is dealing with everyone else.

Don't be afraid to temporarily or permanently cut people out of your lives if their words and actions directly damage your child's well-being.

In this case, if you have family that flat-out refuse to respect and use your child's chosen name and pronouns, say goodbye for now — maybe forever — and don't you dare feel bad about it.

As a parent, I don't claim to have or know all of the answers, because I don't.

Just like all of our cisgender kids are different in one way or another, trans kids do not have one set of rules for parents that "fits all."

Some kids aren't ready to share this part of them with others, while other kids want to tell anyone in the world that will listen.

Some kids want to start transitioning immediately while some are content with the way they present themselves in the moment. It's so important to meet your child where they are, with an open mind and open heart.

Even though every path is different, one thing stays the same — no matter where your child is on their journey, you can never go wrong with understanding, love and support.

RELATED: 5 Things You Probably Don't Know About Transgender People (But Should)

Nicole Pecoraro is a divorced, single mom of three and fierce ally to the LGBTQ+ community from a Chicago suburb. Her writing has been featured on Scary Mommy, Today’s Parent, What’s Up Moms, Ravishly, Fairygodboss, and many others. You can find her on her blog, Mom Transparenting, and on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.