It can be nerve-wracking and scary to bring up the topic of our child’s gender with family and friends. But we have tips and guidance to help make it easier.
Communicating Your Expectations
It can be hard to see people who do not know about your child’s gender and/or who may not be supportive. If you are seeing family or friends that do not know about your child’s gender, it is a good idea to prepare them ahead of time in order to make sure your child’s interactions with them will be positive. A good way to do this is to call or write people prior to their visit so they have some time to get used to the idea and so you can clearly establish your expectations for how they interact with your child. Remember, people will follow your lead on how to respond to your child’s gender.
There is not just one way to deal with this situation, of course, as every family and group of friends are different. Remember that family members and friends are at different places in their understanding of gender identity and gender expression; recognize that while we’ve had some time to think about this (and think about it, and think about it…), this may be completely new to them, as it was to us at some point in time. They also aren’t around our children as much as we are, and may not see what we see in our kids.
Spend some time identifying your expectations, then be very explicit about what you are requesting of others. Let them know about your child’s gender and that you are fully supportive of your child. Tell them that regardless of their personal feelings about your child’s gender and/or your parenting choices, you expect them to be kind and respectful to your child, and that you need them to avoid negative comments about their hair, clothes, and toys. Tell them to use your child’s pronouns and new name. If presents are being exchanged, let them know that you would like them to give what your child actually wants to play with and not what they think your child should play with based on gender stereotypes.
The more you learn to speak with confidence and pride about your child, the easier it will be for others to accept your child and your parenting. People will follow your lead on how to respond or react to your child. You have nothing to apologize or be ashamed about.
Remember, it’s your job to take care of your child, not the needs of other adults. A desire to help other people feel comfortable is natural. Yet if you find yourself doing so by denying or dismissing your child’s authentic self, it can be quite hurtful. For example, if an acquaintance or new person you meet asks about your dress-wearing boy, rather than making comments such as, “Oh yes, that is my son. He’s just pretending to be a princess today,” consider simply saying, “Yes, that’s my son,” or even “Isn’t it great that he’s not afraid to be himself.” Your priority is your child’s well-being.
Concepts and Strategies
Tell your child’s story
Tell the story of your child’s journey and the impact affirming their gender has had on their life. What have you noticed (changes in mood, attitude, at school, socially, etc.)?
State your expectation for support
Clearly state your full support for your child and your expectation that your child be treated with respect. Be clear you will not tolerate unkind or disrespectful comments or questions about your child.
Explain the impact of parental acceptance
Explain the impact of parental acceptance on the health and well-being of gender-expansive youth and why it is so important to support your child. Let them know the sobering statistics:
- 41% of transgender and other gender non-conforming adults have attempted suicide; attempts were highest among those who are younger (18 to 24 was 45%). (Williams Institute and the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, 2014)
- These youth are also at great risk for other self-harming behaviors such as cutting and eating disorders.
Show how support can make a tremendous difference
Share this information, from the Transpulse Study, 2012:
- Teens who perceived that their parents strongly support them in regards to their gender were 93% less likely to attempt suicide than teens who did not perceive that they had strong parent support.
- Teens with strongly supportive parents were also significantly less likely to suffer from depression.
- Teens with strongly supportive parents significantly more likely to be satisfied with their lives, have positive mental health, and have high self-esteem.
Let them know they are welcome to discuss your child’s gender with you in private, but they should not talk about it in front of your child (unless your child is older and has specifically said they want to answer questions about their gender). If you have limits about how much advice or input you are open to, be sure to set them clearly.
Be specific about whether you would like this information to be kept confidential or not. If not confidential, what aspects are they allowed to share? Are there certain ways you want them to speak about the topic?
Provide some resources for them to learn more about gender and youth. Here are some helpful places to start:
- The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper
- The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teensby Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney
- The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD
- Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD
Relate to the whole child
Remind them your child is more than just their gender and they should see and relate to your whole child. If they are nervous, tell them what your child’s current interests are so they will have some safe topics to discuss. Share articles that explain gender and kids so you don’t have to be the expert.
Call or write ahead
You may want to call or write to family and friends before seeing them. We have collected some sample letters that parents/caregivers have sent to family members and friends to assist you in this communication.