Rose Zhang was 13 years old when she realized that she was a transgender girl. Rose told her brother, but the trans teen kept her gender identity hidden from her parents for about two years. Even then, coming out to them didn’t happen on her terms. Rose’s mother, Jessie, noticed that Rose had started hanging out with more girls and fewer boys. Worried about the behavioral shift, she asked Rose’s brother about it. At first, he tried to protect his sister. But Jessie eventually dragged the secret out of him.
Like many parents, Jessie struggled with the revelation. “For the first six months, I think I was in a stage of confusion,” Jessie says. “My first question was, what does that mean? Does that mean you’re feeling like a girl and are emotionally thinking about it that way? Do you want to go through a physical thing?”
Although Jessie always made it clear that she loved her daughter, they often fought after Rose came out. Jessie frequently asked her daughter questions about what it means to be transgender, and this frustrated Rose to no end.
“It was really hard to communicate what was happening,” Rose remembers. She had already done the work of processing her identity as trans, and then she had to do it again for her mom.
It didn’t help that Jessie was so skeptical about what Rose was telling her and clearly didn’t want her daughter to be transgender. She seemed to obsess over detransitioning — an overblown worry that trans people will later change their mind about their gender identity. And those questions increased the conflict. “There were a lot of fears and doubts and insecurities that made the entire thing a lot harder,” Rose says.
Jessie’s trouble at coming to terms with her child’s gender isn’t uncommon for parents of trans kids, says Tandy Aye, a pediatric endocrinologist at Stanford Children’s Health. “There’s a lot of mourning or feeling of loss,” she says. And while that mourning can take time, it shouldn’t keep parents from providing what their children need from the start: support and unconditional love.
In a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Aye and her colleagues surveyed 36 parents and 23 transgender and gender expansive adolescents aged 12-21 about their perceptions of support during pivotal moments in their gender transition. According to trans teens, a show of love and support was one of the best things their parents could offer.
“It’s a stressful process for them too,” Aye says. “And if they need a shoulder to cry on, just physically being there, and for the parents to be able to express their love and support, was the second most common thing that they wanted.”
Luckily, for Jessie and Rose, the mourning didn’t preclude reaching out. Jessies first reaction was to show love. But not every trans teen has that kind of support up front.
Parents often think that the best thing they can do for their trans kids is connect them with support services. But Aye and her colleagues found teens ranked using their new name and pronouns as the most crucial form of support. Unfortunately, parents often have a hard time doing this.
“Parents come up with a name for their child, and that itself is a special process,” Aye says. “When a child says, ‘I don’t like my name, and I want to use something else,’ it’s hard.” To make it easier, Aye recommends asking your child about how they chose their new name and having an open conversation about it.
If parents accidentally use the wrong name or pronouns for their child, Aye suggests quickly acknowledging the mistake and correcting it. Don’t make a big deal out of it or complain about how hard it is for you. This can put the child in a position of feeling like they need to accept an apology, even if their feelings are hurt.
Rose is now 16, but her mom still has occasional trouble with her pronouns. She might accidentally refer to her daughter as “he,” but immediately corrects herself to “she.” That’s exactly correct.
Eventually, Jessie gained a better understanding of the trans experience. Taking Rose to Stanford’s gender clinic was the turning point. One of Jessie’s biggest fears was that she had done something to make her daughter trans. But the doctors explained that’s not how it works and that gender is a spectrum. “I felt a little bit more assured that this is not a teenager confusion,” Jessie says. “I felt like, if professional doctors actually understand it, this is the right thing.”
Afterwards, Jessie was much more on board with Rose’s transition. “Ever since she was little, I was always really proud of her being a very, very smart kid,” Jessie says, describing herself as a “typical Asian mom.” But now she’s also proud that Rose is living her truth. “I think what’s more important to me is her helping others and really coming to realize what she’s looking for in life.”
Looking back on her past mistakes, Jessie is hard on herself. There are many things she would do differently if she had a second chance, she says. That fits the pattern for most parents of trans kids. They rank themselves much worse at supporting their kids than their children do, according to Aye’s study. “If a parent felt that they were not being very supportive at all, the teens actually would think that they were being moderately supportive. And if the parents thought they were only being moderately supportive, the teens thought that they were being very supportive,” she says.
“When children reveal to their parents and say, ‘I’m exploring my gender,’ I think parents get really worried about what do I have to do and this and that,” Aye explains. “But at that moment, what the teens want are simple things that are completely within the realm of parenting and what parents are great at doing.”