The risks for parents of gender expansive children can be alarming, but you do not need to parent from a place of fear. Supportive parenting can have a significant, positive effect on your child’s outlook, mental health and self-esteem.
Support Makes a Difference
In a world that often stigmatizes people whose gender doesn’t fit society’s expectations, transgender, nonbinary, and other gender expansive youth can be at greater risk for self-harming behaviors such as disordered eating, cutting, suicide, and depression. One study has shown that 41% of transgender and gender non-conforming people have attempted suicide.
But your support can make a tremendous difference. An important study of transgender and non-binary teens showed that 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 parental support.
On the other hand, unsupportive parenting practices are directly correlated to transgender, non-binary, and other gender-expansive youth being more depressed and suicidal. Research shows that the most crucial thing we as parents can do is to allow our children to be exactly who they are.
Every family’s situation is unique. Some families have to consider their child’s physical safety in their communities more than others, but all families have to weigh the effects of their parenting approach on their child’s long-term psychological well-being.
What are Supportive Parenting Practices?
Much of the information here comes from the groundbreaking research conducted by the Family Acceptance Project, which indicates a direct and significant impact of family acceptance on rates of suicide, drug use, HIV-related risk, depression, outlook on life, and homelessness. See posters from the Project here.
Create a supportive family environment
Making the home a sanctuary of security and support for your child is the single most important factor in promoting lifelong health and well-being for your child. Such an environment creates a buffer from the hardships your child may face outside of the home. Creating a supportive space may not come easily for you, particularly if you are struggling with accepting your child’s gender. If so, consider seeking help from an empathetic, knowledgeable friend, family member, support group, therapist or other source of support.
Require respect within the family
With immediate and extended family, it is imperative that you require and accept only kindness and respect for your child. While you may not be able to change people’s opinions, you can certainly dictate how you expect others to behave and speak around you and your child. It can be scary to make this demand of family members, yet many parents report that once they’ve taken a stand on their child’s behalf, they feel a great sense of relief and empowerment.
Express support for your child’s gender expression
What does this look like? It means allowing them to choose, without pressure or unspoken messages, the clothes they wish to wear, how and with whom they play, their favorite toys, the accessories they favor, the manner in which they wear their hair, and the decorations and images with which they surround themselves. It means helping them prepare for any negative reactions they may encounter outside the home by practicing their responses with them and making sure, when appropriate, that there is a safe adult for them to turn to in case they need assistance. And it means discussing your own negative or conflicting with other adults, not with your child.
Challenge others who disrespect your child’s gender
A concrete way to demonstrate ongoing support and acceptance for your child is to challenge negative comments about your child, whether your child is with you or not. This means following up with the people who make such comments in a firm way that makes clear your commitment to your child’s well-being. This may also mean needing to follow up with the school about negative comments made by other parents, children or school staff.
Establish and maintain open and honest communication with your child
Stay open about this journey--both your child’s, and your own. Try to reach out to your child and let them know that you are open to talking to them about gender. Let them know that you are there for them. By demonstrating to your child that you are a partner in this process, and by showing a genuine sense of interest in how they see themselves, what they think, and what they are experiencing, you show that you are there for them. This open level of communication will also help you evaluate your child’s level of stress or distress, and whether they may need additional outside support or intervention.
Unsupportive Parenting Practices
Physical or verbal abuse
One of the most damaging things you can do is verbally or physically abuse your child. It won’t change them, and it places them at a far greater risk of suicide and self-harming behaviors. If you are struggling with your feelings, do not share your struggles with your child. Your child will never forget any negative comments you make, even if you feel differently later. It is natural and understandable that you may need help. Find someone you can talk to (friend, therapist, or other professional with expertise in gender), but do not share your difficult feelings with your child.
Exclusion from family activities
The urge to avoid being embarrassed by your gender-expansive child may not seem harmful to you, but acting on that urge can send a message of shame and imply that your child needs to change in order to be a member of the family. Insisting your child dress “properly” or act “normally” in order to join in family activities makes your child feel that the comfort of others trumps their own sense of well-being and security.
Blocking access to supportive friends or activities
Preventing your child from seeing gender-expansive friends and allies or participating in LGBTQ activities will only generate a sense of isolation and significantly increase therisk of self-harming behaviors. Blocking your child’s access not only cuts them off from a critical support system, it also stigmatizes other people like your child.
Blaming the child for the discrimination they face
Saying that a child deserves any mistreatment that they encounter simply for being who they are is incredibly dangerous, and is an implicit message that they are to blame for the cruelty of others. Saying they “asked for it” or “brought it on themselves” is not an acceptable reaction from families, schools or any other communities. Blaming a child for discrimination can also create or amplify feelings of shame, and sends the message that they cannot depend on you for support and protection.
Denigration and ridicule
When you speak or treat your child with disrespect, or allow others to, it shows them that they cannot count on you for the love and protection they desperately need.
Religious or faith-based condemnation
Telling a child that God will punish them or that they will “go to hell” because of their gender greatly increases health and mental health risks, and can remove a vital source of solace.
Silence and secrecy
Insisting your child remain silent about their gender identity or expression tells them that there is something inherently wrong with them. Worrying about what others think of you is not worth harming your child. If you are keeping your child’s gender identity or expression a secret because you are worried about their safety, remember that you also need to think about their mental well-being. Think about ways you can keep your child safe while letting them know that you support them.
Enforcing gender conformity
Even when motivated by a desire to protect your child, asking them to mask who they are sends the harmful message that there is something fundamentally wrong with them.
What Parents Can Do
- Understand gender
- Explore your own gender history
- If damage has been done to the relationship, work to heal it
- Confront your anxieties so that you’re not parenting from fear
- Meet other youth and adults who are transgender or non-binary
- Meet other parents of transgender or non-binary kids
- Find support: parent groups like PFLAG, faith community, friends
- Make sure your child has affirming medical providers, a safe school environment, role models and mentors