Do you have a child who is in the process of coming out, or who is questioning their gender identity or sexuality? We spoke with Keshet’s Jaime Brody and Catherine Bell for suggestions on how to best support your child. Based in Boston, Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.
The good news: Acceptance has grown, and there are more avenues than ever in which to find camaraderie, role models and advice—for kids and parents alike.
“The amount of resources, especially in the Jewish community, is huge,” Brody says. “I also think that social media has had a positive effect. You can find people who know people; there’s a real benefit and positivity with humanizing stories [shared on social media].”
That said, stigma persists, as do health risks. According to the CDC, for example, 27% of transgender youth feel unsafe going to, from or at school, and 35% attempt suicide. And even well-meaning people might not know how to treat you or your child. There will be questions. You might sometimes feel alone or frustrated. You might worry that your child will be bullied. If your child identifies with a gender other than the one they had at birth, you might even mourn the child you once had.
Here’s advice to help smooth the way.
Let your child take the lead. Even young children might seek out opposite-gender toys or clothing. Create a safe space for them to explore. As children get older, make sure your child feels affirmed. This means saying, “I recognize you. I will try to seek out resources to support you, and I will do my best to follow your lead.” As your child expresses their feelings, don’t try to offer advice or redirect or question, especially if your child segues from identity to identity or preference to preference. That is normal; don’t force labels on them. Instead, convey the message that “I hear you, I believe you, and I am with you.”
Don’t process your own emotions alongside your child. You might feel overwhelmed, nervous, sad or confused. Process these feelings with a therapist, a spouse or through support groups. Keshet recommends PFLAG, which unites allies and families of LGBTQ+ people. Other resources include Out Metro West. Keshet also offers a mentorship program for parents who need advice.
Empower your child to make expressive decisions. If your child is exploring their identity, offer chances to make affirming choices, such as a trip to Target to pick out toys or new clothes. “Allow your child to express their identity in whatever way feels authentic to them,” Brody says. This sort of self-expression might even be easier than words.
Set boundaries with family members. Well-meaning grandparents or extended family might have questions about your child’s experience—and your parenting. If they have questions about your child, request that they bring those queries directly to you instead of questioning them. If they probe, a response such as, “We’re supporting a happy kid, and the most important thing is for our child to be happy no matter what that looks like. You can ask me questions later, but we’re going to support our family in this exploration.” Media can help. Bell recommends the films at the Youth & Gender Media Project.
Give it time. This process takes adjustment. Extended family and friends will ask questions. “It’s OK, as long as those questions are asked from a place of love and support,” Brody says. After all, this is a long process for parents and kids, so for outsiders, it’s even slower. “You can’t expect another person to instantly get it,” she says.
Read one mom’s story of supporting her transgender elementary-schooler here.