Transgender Family Fundamentals: Supporting Loved Ones

Published March 16, 2021
Family walking trough the park

A transgender family may refer to many types of different families where one or more members identify as trans. If you have a family member who identifies as trans, it can be helpful to know how to give appropriate support.

Transgender Family

Understanding how to be supportive of a loved one who identifies as trans may feel overwhelming. Just wanting to be supportive of your loved one is a great start, but it's important to educate yourself and understand what being trans means to your family member. Keep in mind that:

  • Gender is a social construct meaning that gender related norms and roles linked to a certain gender are constantly evolving and may vary depending on culture, religion, geographical location, etc.
  • One's sex and gender are not necessarily linked, meaning that your assigned sex does not necessarily correlate with your gender identity and/or expression.
  • Aligning with another gender is not associated with a mental health disorder. While the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM) has had a history of pathologizing individuals whose assigned gender and sex don't align, the DSM V makes a point to state that identifying with your non-assigned gender in it of itself is not pathological.

Understanding Trans-Relevant Terminology

While language is constantly evolving, some terminology that you may come across:

  • Transgender family - a family where one or more members identify as trans (parent(s), children, etc.). Also note that it's not necessary to refer to a family as a trans family- a family is a family
  • Gender expansive - an umbrella term that refers to individuals whose identity and gender expression expands beyond the gender binary- may identify as a man, woman, neither, or in between
  • Genderqueer - a self-identifying umbrella term that refers to one's gender identity and rejects the gender binary
  • AFAB - assigned female at birth
  • AMAB - assigned male at birth
  • Gender fluid - refers to an individual whose gender identity may shift and is fluid
  • Nonbinary - refers to individuals who don't adhere to the notion of the gender binary
  • Two-spirit - refers to having both a masculine and feminine spirit- used by some Indigenous communities and should not be used by non-Indigenous individuals
  • Trans man - an individual who was assigned female at birth, but identifies as a man
  • Trans woman - an individual who was assigned male at birth, but identifies as a woman
  • Bottom surgery/gender affirming surgery/medical transition - refers to vaginoplasty, phalloplasty, and metoidioplasty (important to note that not all trans identifying individuals will undergo surgery)
  • Top surgery/medical transition/gender affirming surgery - refers to surgeries used to reshape the chests of those who identify as trans (not all trans identifying individuals will undergo surgery)

Gender identity and expression can shift over time, and it's important to be respectful of how your loved one chooses to self-identify and express themselves. It's always best to ask someone what their preferred gender pronouns are instead of assuming. Your loved one may also choose to change their name. When you ask questions, be sure to do so with integrity and reinforce your support for your family member.

Transgender kid posing for camera

Importance of Family Acceptance

In a study of accepting versus rejecting families of individuals who identify as trans:

  • Homelessness: 48% (rejecting families) vs. 9% (accepting families)
  • Drug and alcohol use: 47% (rejecting families) vs. 19% (accepting families)
  • Suicide attempts: 51% (rejecting families) vs. 32% (accepting families)
  • Involved in sex work: 29% (rejecting families) vs. 7% (accepting families)

Family acceptance is a huge protective factor for those who identify as trans. Being rejected by your family for being yourself can be one of the most painful and traumatizing experiences a person may go through. Familial rejection tends to impact a more primal/survival part of the brain, which can make processing this even more difficult for those who experience it.

Transgender Parent Grief

It is absolutely normal to experience a sense of loss and even grieve if your child or adult child informs you of their transition. You may feel a sense of loss for many reasons, but it's critical that you find healthy outlets to process your experience that don't include your child. Your child needs to only see you as a beacon of support and unconditional love. In a world where trans individuals are not fully accepted on a social or governmental level, it's up to you to be their rock. Therapy and support groups can be immensely helpful if you are struggling to process your experience.

How to Support Your Transgender Child

Ways you can help support your child who identifies as transgender:

  • Tell them you love them no matter what
  • Tell them you support them becoming their authentic selves
  • Use their preferred gender pronouns
  • Use the name they are comfortable being called
  • Ask them how they are feeling and what you can do to support them
  • Check in with them often- they may lose friends, as well as experience discrimination and harassment as they make their transition and afterwards
  • Make sure you process your feelings and thoughts regarding your child privately; see a therapist or head to a support group
  • Never put your child, even an adult child, in a position where they feel they must take care of you; this is inappropriate and changes their role from child to parent during a time where they need you to be there for them
  • Educate yourself; read books and articles about the trans experience and the experience of parents raising children who identify as trans
  • If you have other children, check in on them and allow them to process their experience in a safe space (therapy and support groups may also help)- they may experience harassment based on their sibling's transition
  • Remember, your child is the same core person they were prior to transitioning
Father with his adopted transitioning son

Can Gender Dysphoria Go Away?

Gender dysphoria is a diagnosis in the DSM V that aims to move away from pathologizing the trans experience. Instead, it focuses on gender identity related "distress" that negatively impacts significant areas of functioning and acts of daily living. With this in mind, gender dysphoria can be treated with the help of a therapist or counselor who specializes in trans specific related issues and experiences. Keep in mind therapeutic help is not meant to shift how you or your child identifies, but rather provide support, resources, and healthy coping skills to manage associated distress.

Supporting a Transgender Family Member

There are many ways you can support a family member who identifies as trans. Be sure to also take care of yourself and seek the help of therapist or counselor if you find yourself isolating or feeling as if you don't have enough outlets to process your experience.

Transgender Family Fundamentals: Supporting Loved Ones