What to do when your child tells you they're transgender
"She asked me if in my heart I feel like a girl, because in her heart she felt like a boy"
We all just want the best for our kids. We want them to be happy and fulfilled, in whatever life they choose for themselves. They're sure to challenge us, and oh boy will they worry us from time to time. But the hope is that our unconditional love will never falter, no matter what.
But what if your son or daughter tells you that they're not the gender they'd been assigned? What do you do when you're child tells you they're trans? A challenge, no doubt, for even the more open-minded parent.
Writer Nicole Pecoraro was faced with exactly that when her child was just four. She told Motherly: "For years I thought my family was made up of one boy and two girls. One girl who was very much into princesses and dolls, babies and glitter. And one girl who liked blue and trucks, karate and superheroes. One night, when my middle child was four, I was laying in my bed with her listening to her ramble on about the day, discussing various events. And suddenly she stopped and crept up very close to my ear to whisper that she had a secret. She confided in me that she is 'a girl and a boy.'
"I knew, of course, that she preferred "boy" things. She spent more time trying to play in rocket ships and fit in with her brother than she did playing with dolls these days. She never let me brush her hair and if I got her into anything remotely "pretty" it was with a lot of bribery, and usually just as many tears. It wasn't until she elaborated that I started to think this might be something more. She continued to explain that she felt like God had made a mistake. That her parts were not right. She should have a different name like Brent or Jake because those names are for boys and her name is very 'girl'."
"As I left her in bed that night and went to turn out the light, she said one more thing that I'll never forget. She asked me if in my heart I feel like a girl because in her heart she felt like a boy.
"The experts say the benchmarks of a transgender child are consistency, insistency, persistence"
Nicole was surprised by the revelation, but she kept as level a head as possible and waited for her child to guide her next move, as she explains: "My initial reaction was — wait it out, see what comes of it. But the next day when my daughter woke up, she came into my room to give me a big hug. She then, timidly, reminded me of our conversation the night before. As if this was something she had been planning for a long time, and felt relieved to admit. And that's when I knew, this was more than a fleeting thought in a late-night chat. The experts say the benchmarks of a transgender child are consistency, insistency, persistence. If a child expresses feelings of being trans but waivers and changes their mind day to day, that's not to say your child is NOT trans, but consistency is key."
So, what did she do? "We validated. We accepted. She asked for a shortened version of her birth name and so that is what we started using consistently. Within a few weeks, she asked us to change to male pronouns because, 'you should be calling me 'he.' I'm a boy.' And so, we did. We agreed to take him for a short haircut. We flooded his closets with boy options to choose from. He still had his old clothes, but new ones as well. And once my son was given more tangible and attainable options to live as his true self, that was when my daughter started to become my son."
It wasn't a seamless transition, as you can imagine: "I started learning to change my language—the way I referred to him, and the way I introduced him to new (and re-introduced him to old) people. I had to explain to his siblings what was going on and how we are a family, so that means we support each other even if we don't quite understand. We referred to my child as he/him/his from that point on.
"I read and researched and called professionals and researched some more. It was as if I was pregnant with my first child all over again trying to learn how to raise a child, except I had children and had been a mom for many years, but this was so new, so unexpected and I was SO scared. I feared for his future, for his life after reading about the scary statistics that trans kids who don't have support from their families have a 40% higher suicide rate.
"There was no question in my mind that I would much rather have a transgender child, than one who took his own life"
"Once I realised how serious the outcome could be if I didn't accept, support and follow my son's lead, I was strikingly convinced. There was no question in my mind that I would much rather have a transgender child, than one who took his own life later because of something I could control, something I could help with."
Unsurprisingly, the family's acceptance of their child in this way was met by questions from outsiders: "People often ask me why I'm "allowing" this. As if this was something I could choose NOT to permit. When it comes to your child understanding and identifying with their gender, it has already happened. It's not a matter of allowing them to be trans, but more a matter of whether or not you are going to choose, as a parent, to let them be who they already are."
There are many challenging elements to receiving news like this from your child. It would perhaps be foolish to pretend it's as easy as 'accept and move on'. No parent wants their child to experience pain, so learning that they may have been suffering in silence is never going to come easy. There may be an element of grief and of losing the child you thought you knew. And there are decisions around healthcare, medication and possibly surgery.
It can be a difficult thing, for everyone involved, in many different ways. There may be doubts, questions, worry and a whole host of other emotions.
The vital thing to remember is that your child is feeling all of that too, and then some. So, as Nicole Pecoraro showed, validation and acceptance are the opening steps.
Support is the next phase. Family support for the child, external support for the child and support for the whole family, as you navigate through these new waters together.
Where to go for help and support if your child is transgender
LGBT Ireland, Transgender Family Support Line: PH: 01 907 3707
Transgender Equality Network Ireland, teni.ie: PH 01 873 3575
BeLonGTo, belongto.org: PH 01 670 6223