It’s normal to experience grief when a child comes out as transgender. Here’s some ways that parents can navigate the process.
Ambiguous loss is the grief parents feel when they lose a transgender child to the process of transitioning. It’s called ‘ambiguous’ because it is not the concrete, tangible loss that follows the physical death of a child. For that reason, ambiguous loss may leave parents with feelings of unresolved grief.
Grief and loss are natural feelings when confronted with a child’s transgender identity because it shatters traditional images of gender. What it means to be a man or woman, girl or boy, informs much of our behaviour. This is especially true in family relationships, where roles are based on a set of pre-determined expectations for how we are supposed to act.
How a parent responds to their child’s transgender identity is critical to whether the transitioning experience is a positive or negative one.
How a parent responds to their child’s transgender identity is critical to whether the transitioning experience is a positive or negative one. It is essential that parents reframe the way they feel about their child’s transitioning, from regret and sadness to excitement about what the future holds.
It’s essential because transgender and gender diverse people experience incredibly high rates of mental health issues. LGBTIQ+ Health Australia’s April 2021 report provides some alarming statistics. Of 14 to 25-year-olds surveyed, 48% had attempted suicide, 79% had self-harmed, 74% were diagnosed with depression and 72% with anxiety. A staggering 90% of transgender people aged 14 to 21 reported high or very high levels of psychological distress.
Given these statistics, it’s clear that for transgender children family support can be the difference between life and death. This is supported by research which shows that gender-affirming behaviour by family members has a hugely positive impact on mental health.
Gender-affirming behaviour by family members has a hugely positive impact on mental health.
Parents act as models to their children, based on socially and culturally constructed gender roles. Before a child is born, parents have started planning the child’s future and, usually, it’s gendered. So, having an emotional response to such a big event as a child telling their parents they’re transgender is normal. It is reasonable for parents to grieve the loss of an imagined future.
A 2020 study looked at whether parents had an emotional experience, like mourning, to their child’s transition. It was found that parents’ reactions followed the typical grief response. Not understanding what their child was going through led parents to experience feelings of denial, fear, anger, and powerlessness.
What the study revealed was that parents who best overcame their grief had a support system in place. Involvement in transgender advocacy groups reinforced the fact that, despite being transgender, their child was the same child they’ve always known. Importantly, realising their child was happy with their chosen gender had a positive impact on parental resilience when dealing with the transition process.
Research shows that children who come out as transgender already have a strong sense of their identity … They know who they are because they’ve always felt like that.
Research shows that children who come out as transgender already have a strong sense of their identity, usually from a very early age. They know who they are because they’ve always felt like that. It is important that parents understand that children change their gender to fit their identity, their identity doesn’t change because their gender does.
While there may be things that parents had planned to do with their child that they can no longer do, they will discover many new and different ways to bond with and love their child such as joining their experimentation with new clothing, helping them choose a new name or pronouns.
It is possible to remain loving and supportive while simultaneously experiencing loss, sadness, fear and confusion. Working through these feelings takes time. Just as a child needs compassion and support to navigate the transitioning process, so do parents.
Here are some ways parents can support themselves and their transgender child:
- Don’t give in to fear. Fear can cause parents to push back or reject their child. This fear is underpinned by love, driven by a concern that the world is a harsh place for transgender people. Make sure the child knows they’re loved and supported.
- Encourage exploration. Gender exploration is a normal part of a child’s development. Give children the freedom to explore their emotions about gender before they consider a permanent change.
- Education is key. Get familiar with the information that is out there about gender expression. There are a lot of online resources available, such as Transcend, QLife, Rainbow Door, queerspace, and Transgender Victoria (TGV).
- Create a safe space. Transitioning takes a long time and can be difficult. Encourage the child to openly discuss their feelings so they feel safe and protected as they transition.
- Families need to transition, too. Each family member must shift their thinking and understanding. Take the time to process these thoughts and any feelings of loss.
- Seek help. Ensure access to a team of medical and mental health experts. Identify allies at school, so the child knows where to go for support if they are bullied or excluded.
Yes, having a trans child means questioning personal views on gender. And, yes, it usually involves a lot of – sometimes uncomfortable – discussions with friends, relatives and complete strangers about the process of transitioning and what it involves. These conversations can evoke strong feelings in others that parents should be prepared for.
While the world might not always be understanding, parents can be.
But, while the world might not always be understanding, parents can be. A child might wear different clothes and go by a different name, but they’re still the person you know and love.
It’s important to remember that a parent’s grief and loss is theirs, not their child’s. Accept these feelings for what they are: natural and normal reactions. Parents need to work with their feelings, not against them.
At the same time, parents need to support, comfort, and maintain an open dialogue with their transgender child as they work through the process together. Recognise their child’s bravery and show gratitude. Parent and child will be so much the better for it.