Understanding our child’s gender can be a hard road for parents, and even though we may not have chosen this, it is our road to navigate
You are not alone
Parents have a variety of responses to their gender-expansive or transgender children, and none of them are “right” or “wrong.” Feelings of embarrassment, denial, anger, fear, doubt, grief, and worry are normal, as are feelings of acceptance, understanding, support, pride and joy. Many parents feel a combination of positive and negative feelings.
You are not alone in your feelings or in your experience of raising a gender-expansive child. It can be very helpful and comforting to seek support from other parents or from a mental health professional.
Feelings of guilt
It is common for parents to blame themselves when a child falls outside of gender norms. They ask themselves, “Is it my fault somehow?” “Where did I go wrong?” Mothers may feel they were too permissive. Fathers may be angry and refuse to accept their gender-expansive child, especially if this child was born a boy.
Current research supports the theory that gender is “hard-wired” in the brain from birth. Gender diversity is not an illness or a result of poor parenting. It is not the result of divorce or an indication of child abuse. Gender diversity is not caused by liberal, or permissive parenting, or by a parent who secretly wished their child were the ‘opposite’ sex. It is normal. You did not cause this or do anything wrong.
Feelings of loss
Another common feeling is that of loss. Families, parents, and siblings may feel a sense of grief at the idea they are “losing” their son or daughter, their brother or sister. Even though the child is alive and well, a socially recognized gender change can elicit strong feelings of losing the person we thought we knew. We may experience periods of sadness, anger, and mourning as we (or our other children) come to terms with our child’s authentic identity.
Living with uncertainty
One of the biggest challenges to raising gender-expansive kids is learning to live with uncertainty. When a child is not clearly identifying as male or female, even parents who want to be supportive can find themselves thinking, “Just decide already, one way or another!” A lack of consistency in their child’s gender expression can leave parents wondering just who their child “really” is. Parents feel more empowered to help their child if they know where their child will end up.
But gender identity is not always “one or the other.” We need to recognize that not every child is on the path to choosing a male or female gender identity. Many children (and adults) feel like they are both genders, neither gender, go back and forth, or find they identify in other non binary ways. They have already arrived at their final destination, which is a space outside typical gender constructs. Or, they may still be figuring it out. We won’t know until our child knows and can communicate this to us, and that may take many years. It is important for us to follow their lead, and let them figure out who they are at their own pace.
Finding language that works for your child and yourself can be a big help in dealing with uncertainty. With older children, this can mean discussing together how they would like for you to refer to them, both directly as well as when you are speaking with others. Some families take the approach of working around pronouns by just using the child’s name. Others use gender neutral pronouns such as “they” or “ze.” Developing stock responses that don’t include male or female pronouns can also be helpful: “My kid is just being their true self!”