Families exist to provide support and love to one another. Strong families are able to work through differences, listen and respect each other’s needs, and help each member to feel safe, accepted, and loved even in difficult times. Strong families work to value the diversity and uphold the dignity of all members. This is not always easy and often takes a great deal of time and effort especially when struggling with societal pressure.
Parents of transgender and gender-variant youth may feel frustrated by their child’s behavior, appearances, and/or identities. Parents may find it difficult to understand, support, and love their transgender and gender-variant child. Some parents may not know how to feel or may experience conflicting emotions towards their gender-variant child. The purpose of this section is to give language to the possibility of a positive relationship between parents and gender-variant children. It is about alleviating alienation between parents and their children while exploring possibilities of future parent/child relationships.
Finding a Compromise
Probably the most difficult task most parents have is finding a compromise. How do you take care of your needs as a parent while meeting the needs of your child? In a situation in which a child does not conform to expected societal norms, parents endure a great deal of stress: from questions about their parenting skills; to ridicule from family, friends, faith-based communities, medical professionals, and schools; to worry about their child’s well-being.
Even if you cannot celebrate your child’s differences, it is at least important to tolerate your child’s gender-variant appearances, behaviors, and identities. Your child is not responsible for your feelings of anger, fear, guilt, or annoyance. This does not mean that you should not have or express these feelings. It is important that you do so with a supportive friend, family member, or counselor.
Remember: Your child is not expressing gender-variant tendencies to spite you. Your child’s feeling good is not in defiance of your needs and wishes.
The following information in this section was taken from a lecture on The Family Acceptance Project given by Stephanie Brill at the 2007 Gender Odyssey Spectrum conference on in Seattle, Washington. The Family Acceptance Project is a study done at San Francisco State University researching the impact of family acceptance and rejection on the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. It is important to note that rejection at home has a much greater impact than rejection or acceptance gained elsewhere. Families have the opportunity to strongly influence the health and positive development of gender-variant youth.
Below are ideas on how families can support gender-variant youth followed by a description of ideas and behaviors that are harmful to gender-variant youth.
How can you be a celebratory family?
- Support and welcome the transgender community in your town. Welcome transgender friends and role models into your home.
- Be active in the transgender community in your town. Volunteer and participate in events.
- Take a stand against discrimination. Address negative behavior towards your child such as comments or “looks”. Don’t ignore it. Also address injustices towards the greater transgender community.
- Express admiration for your child. Tell them what characteristics you enjoy. Tell them they are brave and strong. Tell your child that you appreciate them. Celebrate your child’s gender expression.
- Find or make your own supportive religious practices.
- Expect and require respect within the family. Tell your relatives, if they have a hard time accepting your child, that you expect to hear nothing but respect and positive affirmation of your child.
- Express love for your child, either verbally or through affection.
Behaviors to avoid:
The following behaviors have been found to have the worst impact on a child’s physical, emotional, and social health.
- Physical abuse.
This includes hitting, slapping, pushing, kicking, throwing things, pulling hair, or making threatening gestures.
- Verbal Abuse.
Includes yelling, screaming, name calling, threatening, shaming, humiliating, or “black-mailing”.
- Excluding from family
This refers to not including your child in family activities, discussions, dinners, rituals, celebrations or photos.
- Shame or denial
This includes not taking your child seriously or dismissing the child’s expressions or concerns by saying things like “you’re just confused” or “you’ll grow out of it”. Denying your child’s identity may include restricting your child’s clothing, telling them you’re embarrassed to be seen with them, or asking them to “tone it down”. Do not express to your child that you are ashamed of them or don’t want them to be who they are.
- Silence or Secrecy
Likewise, it is important that your gender-variant child not be controlled by messages of shame. Examples of these types of messages include telling your child they can only dress or behave in certain ways at home and not in public; explaining that gender-variant expressions are only appropriate in private; and telling your child not to tell people. These examples imply that something is wrong with the child, that the child should be ashamed, and should hide important parts of their self.
Pressuring your child to change their appearance, their clothing, their behaviors, their activities, or their friends sends the same message: that your child is not good enough as they are, and they need to change.
- Reparative Therapy
Reparative therapy begins with the assumption that there is something “wrong” with your child. By telling your child that you can help make them “normal” or fix them, you are sending the message that “if you don’t change, we won’t love you”. Your child does not need this message. According to research, reparative therapy, also known as behavioral modification therapy, has a weak history of intended success. Most clinicians and families utilizing this treatment rely on strict stereotypical male/female gender roles while ignoring their own biases and discriminatory tendencies.
- Religious condemnation
- Do not tell your child that God will punish them. Do not tell your child that they will go to hell. Do not attempt or let others attempt to “save” your child through prayer or other ceremonies expressing the idea that “who they are” is bad.