What Not to Say When Your Child Comes Out as Transgender

young school-age child with hair tied up wears glasses and explores with magnifying glassIn my practice, I work with many people who are transgender. The ages of those I’ve worked with over the years range from 5 (yes, 5) to 65, and the single most common complaint I have heard from these individuals is that their loved ones have said or done something that leads them to question the validity of their identity.

To illustrate: teenagers I work with will often tell me that when they approached their parents to talk about identifying as trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or any other identity on the spectrum, their parents’ first response was, “Are you sure this isn’t a phase?” While parents may have meant this harmlessly, and only intended to seek information about what was going on with their child, this language is not validating and is likely to leave the child (or adult) feeling unsupported and as if who they are doesn’t matter.

The phrases below are a few examples of what not to say when a child (or anyone you know!) comes out to as trans. I also offer some suggestions to consider that may lead to a more productive conversation and help your child feel validated and supported.

Here are a few things NOT to say in these situations. I also offer, for your consideration, some suggestions that may lead to a more productive conversation.

“Are you sure this isn’t just a phase?”

It’s a good idea to avoid this question because it questions the basic understanding your child or teen has of themselves. When I work with parents, I often suggest we simply meet the child where they are right then, without considering how “sure” or “unsure” they may be of their identity. While a few of the people I have worked with have identified differently on the spectrum throughout their lives, none of them considered any of those identifications as a “phase.” I went through a phase of dying my hair pink and wearing studded bracelets. But I did not go through a phase of identifying as female. I have always been aware of my female identity, just as people who are trans are aware of their own identities.

Gender identity is exactly what it says: identity. It is an intrinsic part of who a person is. Would you question a person’s identity based on race or religion and ask them if it was a “phase”? It may be helpful to view gender identity in the same way. If today your child tells you they are trans, then it’s best to go with that until they tell you otherwise.

“Don’t you think you should date a person of X gender first?”

Gender identity and sexuality are completely different entities. Often, the parents of the people I work with confuse the two. Though they are trying to better understand their child’s disclosure by asking questions like these, they are simultaneously completely misunderstanding what their child is telling them.

Having your child come out to you as transgender or gender nonconforming may be overwhelming, confusing, and emotional, but I implore you to try to see your child’s disclosure as a demonstration of the trust they have in you as a parent.

For example, a transgender man (a person who was assigned female at birth might also identify as FtM (female to male) does not need to have a romantic or sexual relationship with another man in order to know whether he is truly male. Being romantically involved with a man (or person of any gender) does not inform a trans person’s sense of gender identity—in the same way a cisgender woman (person who was assigned female at birth and who identifies as female) would not have to date a man to know she is female, only whether she is sexually attracted to men.

“You are too young.”

To this, I simply say “Wrong.”

I understand a lot of people may struggle with the idea that young children can know their gender identity at such a young age. Sure, preschool and kindergarten years are a relatively gender-fluid time as it is, and gender roles and stereotypes may be more lax—let’s face it, a 5-year-old boy in a princess dress is likely to receive an “aww” because we assume children are just playing and exploring costumes and ideas rather than figuring out who they are.

However, I do strongly believe that children as young as 2 or 3 years of age can be aware of their gender identity. This awareness may present as an aversion to certain clothes or an attraction to a certain type of style that does not align with the gender they were assigned at birth. Rather than assuming your daughter is a tomboy or your son is just curious about your shoes, I encourage you to be open to the idea that your child may be figuring out who they are. Listen to them, hear their concerns or desires, and above all, please remain open-minded. Encourage their style, gender presentation, and expression, whether it turns out to be simple exploration or early expression of gender identity. The sooner our children know we support them regardless of who they are, the healthier and happier they are likely to be in adulthood.

Having your child come out to you as transgender or gender nonconforming may be overwhelming, confusing, and emotional, but I implore you to try to see your child’s disclosure as a demonstration of the trust they have in you as a parent. This act of sharing, which they may have deliberated over for some time, is likely to leave them feeling vulnerable and open. Keep that in mind as you choose your next steps and words, as they can, and likely will, have a lasting impact on your child and may be a touchstone memory for the rest of their lives.

I believe the most essential and key support system for any child is their family, and I encourage you to openly offer as much love and support as you possibly can. If you would like to talk through what you are feeling, or discover ways of opening a conversation or showing your support, I recommend seeking out a compassionate and qualified therapist or counselor who is trained in working with trans individuals and their families.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Heather Zawislak, MA, LCSW, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • DJ

    November 29th, 2017 at 10:51 AM

    I’m trans the worst thing anyone has said to me about it is “God made you a woman on purpose who are you to defy Gods plan”

  • Kathy

    April 4th, 2019 at 12:03 PM

    There is wonderful advice in your article but the problem is that parents almost never get information about how to handle their trans child coming out BEFORE it happens. Discussion about gender identity needs to become a part of parenting classes and books, then parents will have a better idea what to do.

  • Jennifer B.

    April 17th, 2019 at 3:00 PM

    IT is normal to go through phases and be fluid.. IT is normal to not go through phases and know who you are from birth.I would say dwelling on it or asking repeatedly or deciding for your child that it is a phase is rude. There are better ways of putting it and looking at the pattern of your child’s behavior over their life is a clue to phase or not. It is not a relavent question because if it is a phase – then it will be a phase. Just support whatever it is, whatever it becomes, whatever because it is your child. There are better questions to ask. OR really, an ongoing dialog is better. There really is nothing to really say except “ok. Good to know”.

  • A confused mama

    June 2nd, 2020 at 8:14 AM

    My son came out to me last night, my mom (his grandmother) has been on life support and he wanted to tell me. I am so ignorant to what he told me, “Mom I am trans” that I had to Google it. But the 1st thing out of my mouth was I love you, and I always will. Just be happy. I’m still so confused on emotions, is this normal? My son is almost 22 yrs old.

  • confusion in a nutshell

    March 30th, 2022 at 7:39 PM

    I came out as trans recenlty and my grandmother told me this: “i will call you (preferd name) but i will not use your prounouns because it will be too hard for me to remember” I just stood and looked at her and was like BITCH DA FUCK!?

  • Kaidon

    October 16th, 2023 at 12:23 AM

    I came out to my parents recently I’m FTM Trans, they say they accept me and will love me no matter what but then they refuse to call me Kaidon and keep deadnaming me and using the wrong pronouns (I use he/they) and just really don’t accept me as their son even though they say they support me I just don’t understand and I get really uncomfortable being called my deadname I don’t know what to do, won’t even accept me as a boy. My mum even made fun of my name and hated on it and my dad just doesn’t call me my name either I just want them to accept me as their son.

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