Making sense of their child’s gender identity

The parents we spoke to described a variety of emotions and different stages as they made sense of their child’s gender identity. For many parents, the way they understood and felt about it changed over time. They often described their experiences as a ‘journey’, and most thought things got easier and better. Jan said: ‘It wasnt always easy in the earlier days. But yeah, it got easier as time went on.’

Josie talked about the different stages in her journey of understanding and accepting her trans daughter.

Initial reactions and feelings

Thinking back to their initial reaction to the news that their child is trans or gender diverse, some of parents talked about:
  • Feelings of shock or surprise;
  • Realising that they didn’t know much about trans children and people; and
  • Worrying about their child’s future.
Many parents felt surprised and even shocked when their child first came out to them as trans or gender diverse. Some were completely unaware that it was possible for a child to be trans. One parent spoke about how she did not think her daughter might be trans because, at the time, she did not consider that a ‘possibility.’ She said: ‘I didnt even have the vocabulary.’ Jan talked about feeling shocked and very emotional, and also how she hid her feelings from her daughter because she didn’t want to add to an already difficult time for her.

Jan spoke about the initial shock and her family’s decision to embrace the change and support her daughter.

Andrew described how the initial shock was followed by a period of adjustment to the changes that were taking place. For example, he spoke about how it takes a bit of getting used to seeing your child wear different clothes. He also thought fathers found it harder to deal with issues of gender and sexuality when it came to their children because of expectations and stereotypes about men talking about their feelings. He said that men were ‘not so good at talking about very personal, delicate, emotional issues.’

Andrew described the initial feelings of surprise and talked about how it takes time to get used to the change.

Seeing the changes in their child’s appearance and behaviour, and the impact these had on their wellbeing, was sometimes very emotional for parents. For example, Georgina talked about how her son ’emerged like a butterfly’ when he finally got the haircut he had wanted, and how this was something she would never forget. Read more about the impact of transition.

Seeing her son get a haircut he wanted was a very emotional moment for Georgina.

Parents spoke about wanting to be open and accepting of diversity in general, but most described having very little previous knowledge about trans children and issues. This meant that they often felt confused when their child came out as trans or gender diverse. VM, OOnagh and Lisa all talked about how there can be confusion between being gay and being trans or non-binary. Ross said he had not known anything about being trans before his son’s coming out and ‘got very confused between transvestism and transitioning.’ One mother, whose child identifies as non-binary, said that she had heard ‘of people being transsexual and having sex ops’ but that she hadn’t really known about ‘non-binary or people that just didn’t feel at one with the gender they were.’

Interview 1 said she had zero knowledge about trans children before.

Although Ali had some previous knowledge about being trans before their child came out, they felt their understanding was ‘quite black and white’ compared to what they know now.

Not knowing much about trans children and people, and not knowing any other parents in similar situations, sometimes left parents feeling isolated. E and D thought they ‘must be the only people this is happening to’ when their son first came out to them as trans. Having little knowledge about trans issues and health meant that most parents felt they had to educate themselves and look for information to be able to understand and support their children. Some also found it helpful to get some support for themselves.
Many parents we spoke to worried about their children’s futures. Andrew thought that whilst all parents worry whether their children will be happy, parents of trans children worry about it more. When one parent realised that her daughter might be trans, she found it scary and worried about her daughter’s future. She talked about how this has changed and how she now has much more knowledge and a more positive outlook.

Andrew talked about how parents of trans children worry more about their children’s future and how him and his wife are doing everything so that their daughter can be happy.

Not all parents were shocked or even surprised when their child came out as trans. Kate emphasised that her son was still the same, but now a happier person. She felt that was very important, as most parents want their children to be happy. Whilst she realised her son’s path might be ‘trickier’, she also felt uncomfortable when people assumed what she was going through in relation to her son’s gender identity was a big deal.

Kate was not particularly surprised when her son came out as trans and thought her support for him was not a big deal and was just part of being a mum.

Worrying about what others will say

Some parents we spoke to were initially worried about what others might think or say about their child’s transition or gender expression. VM’s initial thoughts were that she and her family would have to move, but she eventually stopped caring about that and decided that anyone who is not supportive of her and her daughter was ‘off the Christmas card list.’ Mel had worried about how people would react to her trans stepdaughter going out in public in girl’s clothes in the ‘early days’.

VM was initially worried about what people would say and thought she would have to move.

Mel said she and her husband initially felt apprehensive about her stepdaughter going out wearing girl’s clothes.

Initial doubts and prioritising the relationship

Some parents had initial doubts about whether their child was actually trans or wondered if their child was confused. Elijah said: ‘My wife and I were sceptical at first, because we appreciated at 12, 13 it’s a difficult time.’ Josie talked about how initially one of her fears was that her daughter was not really trans. VM explained about her daughter: ‘When she first told us, I did think to myself, Im not sure shell go through with this.’ Others, like Lisa, thought their child was gay. For her, in making sense of the situation it was important to take one day at the time and to recognise that she was doing her best.
Both VM and Lisa emphasised the importance of their relationship with their children. For Lisa, prioritising her role as a mother has helped her stay connected to her son, despite the difficulties. It is important to note that parental support and acceptance are key to the wellbeing and mental health of young trans and gender diverse people and so is access to timely care.*

VM spoke about how she managed to stay connected to her daughter, despite finding it difficult in the beginning.

Prioritising her role as a mother and allowing herself to make mistakes, whilst taking one day at a time helped Lisa to face the difficulties.

Mel, who has a trans stepdaughter, spoke about how she feels she is on the edge of what is going on. She found it ‘a bit weird’ being ‘slightly outside’ the situation but also thought her role gives her a better viewpoint that allows her to see some things more clearly and be more objective.

Mel thought being a stepmother means you are a bit outside, but this allows you to be more objective.

Find out what people we spoke to said about their experiences with the Gender Identity Development Service.
* See for example:
Puckett, J. A., Matsuno, E., Dyar, C., Mustanski, B., & Newcomb, M. E. (2019). Mental health and resilience in transgender individuals: What type of support makes a difference? Journal of Family Psychology 33(8).
Simons, L., Schrager, S. M., Clark, L. F., Belzer, M., & Olson, J. (2013). Parental support and mental health among transgender adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(6).