Supporting teens as they explore their gender identity

You may have experienced a variation of this scenario: You are finally getting to bed after a long day, getting drowsy, about to drift off.

Your teen comes in looking for something, which turns out to be a cover for wanting to talk. They ask, “Are you awake?” Maybe your kid holds their inner-life close and you know this is a time-limited window for connection, so you wrestle your way back to wakefulness.

Perhaps they tell you they want to be called a different name than the one you gave them when they were born, or they tell you their gender assigned at birth doesn’t feel right or they ask you to buy them clothes that would feel more aligned with how they feel inside.

Your mind may start spinning like an old, overstuffed rolodex looking for the “right” way to respond amid a storm of emotions in your heart and your gut. You might feel an impulse to take action, to fix something, to do something. But instead, you take a deep inhale and a longer exhale, and try to set down your worry about being “right” or “good.”

You remind yourself that what your kid needs is to feel accepted, to be seen and heard, to stay connected to you. You recall a time when you had to summon the courage to share something about yourself with someone you loved while feeling uncertain about how they would respond.

You say, “I am so grateful you trust me with how you’re feeling – that’s not always easy. How can I support you?”

The message you want to send is more than, “I love you no matter what,” (i.e., in spite of what you’ve shared). The message you want to send is, “The more I truly know you the more I love you” (because of what you’ve shared).

It is possible you are not the first person they have talked with about this. They’ve likely talked with friends, maybe with a teacher or doctor or counselor, possibly with an online group of peers. Though this information might be new to you, it is not new to them.

“[B]y the time a teen discusses their gender identity with a parent, they have decided that the costs of trying to conform are much greater for them than the costs of living authentically, which makes it all the more important for them to be able to rely on a parent’s love and support… Research shows that family support is the single most important factor in shaping transgender and non-binary youths’ lives.” (The Transgender Teen (2016), Brill, Stephanie & Kenney, Lisa).

While you may feel hurt you aren’t the first to know, you remind yourself that they waited to tell you because you matter so much to them. So follow their lead. Listen to understand, not to respond or convince. Let them tell you the next right step and walk next to them. Honor that this is their journey to share with others when they are ready.

The moment we learn we are about to become parents, we fantasize about the experiences our kids will have as they grow. At some point, we grapple with the loss of that fantasy as our kids (hopefully) show us who they authentically are and write their own story.

Your emotional experience supporting your kid through this process will likely be complex – you might experience grief, confusion, worry about telling extended family and how they will respond, fear about saying the wrong thing. You are not bad or wrong for having those feelings.

Just as our kids need support, we as parents also need and deserve support. We can’t ask our kids to help us with our feelings – we need to find that support from our friends and family, from our counselors and healthcare providers, through our supportive practices.

Now is a great time to widen your understanding of gender identity and the experience of being trans or gender non-conforming. You can read books, listen to podcasts, learn on social media, get lost in poetry, and watch movies. But don’t let that be a replacement for curiosity and openness to the uniqueness of your kid’s experience. Keep checking in with your child about how they are feeling and what, if any, action feels right to them.

Helen Burke is a therapist for Bainbridge Youth Services, which has a monthly column in this newspaper.