“What did I do wrong?”
Oftentimes, this is the first reaction parents have when their child comes out as transgender, says Dr. Dalton Connally, licensed clinical social worker and founder and CEO at Connally Counseling, LLC in Ann Arbor. It’s a lot for parents to process, but in the moments after your child’s declaration, it’s important to take yourself out of the equation and simply support your child.
“That’s the No. 1 thing that they need. They need this unconditional support and love, even if you are sure in your heart 100% that what they are feeling is wrong,” she says. “For their development and their mental health well-being, they need to process it and come to it on their own.”
A lack of parental support can lead to tragedy. In fact, Connally says, the suicide attempt rate for transgender adolescents and teens is 43%.
“You want to keep your kid alive,” she says.
As your family is navigating this time in your life, there are many ways to ensure your child feels supported and loved. Here, Connally offers some advice for families of transgender youth.
Getting on the same page
Without parents realizing it, their child has likely been grappling with their identity for quite some time, so while it’s the first time you’re hearing it, it isn’t new for your child.
“They are taken by surprise by a child’s admission that they are struggling with their gender or their sexuality, and they think it is something new,” Connally says. In reality, the child has been exploring this and are trying to give voice to it before they ever tell their parents or anyone else. Given that, she says, they are usually very sure about what is going on with them when they finally do tell you. So, even if you think they are not sure, the worst thing that you can do is to tell them that they are not.
“Believe them, even if you don’t believe them, believe them, and support them on their journey,” she says.
That support might mean you have to use an alternate name or pronoun for your child. It also means that you avoid making assumptions about what their gender identity change means.
“I think one of the other assumptions that parents make a lot is that when their child’s gender changes that their attractions are also going to change, and the vast majority of the time that is not true,” she says.
Parents have a tendency to say if you want to be a boy or a man, you need to like girls, but that’s not the way it works. Don’t assume and don’t get angry if this is the case for your child.
Ignore external factors, too, Connally adds.
“Care more about your child than what you care about other people’s opinion,” Connally says. That includes the opinions of extended family or friends.
Getting professional help for your child and your family is key.
“As much as I personally appreciate the help that churches and synagogues can give, that’s not what is needed,” Connally says.
Children and teens need professional help to evaluate potential suicide risk and mental health. However, not every therapist is trained to handle transgender issues, so make sure you get someone who has experience in this area, she suggests.
At Connally’s practice, professionals work with the entire family. The child is seen individually. In addition, they meet for four to six sessions with the parents separately, and then come back and do some family meetings with everyone to process the changes in the child’s life and the family. From here, they discuss how they are going to approach it.
“It is difficult and we try to have compassion for the entire family,” she says. “It is the entire family that is transitioning.”
Those looking for additional resources and support can visit the World Professional Association of Transgender Health, also known as W-PATH, which promotes evidence-based care, education, research and more regarding transgender health. This is a great resource for parents who want to understand more about the medical aspect of transitioning including hormones and surgery.
Check out the Ann Arbor Youth Gender and Sexuality Alliance, or metro Detroit-based Stand With Trans, or join a Facebook group to interact with other parents of transgender kids. Parents have told Connally that they find more relief from chatting with other parents online.
Reach out to Affirmations in Ferndale, or search online for other organizations that can provide resources and support for your family as you’re navigating this time in your life.
Content brought to you by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. For more information, visit flinnfoundation.org.