Know Thyself: What if all it takes to bridge the gap between trans teens and parents is for parents to know themselves better?

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Counselling psychologist Jonathan Bosworth.
Counselling psychologist Jonathan Bosworth.

Most parents are hyperaware that, when it comes to raising kids, we don't get a mulligan. This is it. It's probably why guilt – closely followed by fear – is so pervasive in parenting. It's also why we're all so desperate to not fuck it all up. It's probably why you're on this site, reading this article.

With this in mind, when we're faced with a child who tells us that they're transgender, nonbinary or simply questioning their gender identity, there's no doubt that we want to do right by them. We want to say the right thing and take the best next step, because we love them.

With that said, we're also the first generation of parents to be fumbling our way through the imminent normalisation of gender fluidity. So how do we know that we're doing this right? How do we not fuck it up?

'Throw away the notion of the perfect parent'

According to Dr Anastacia Tomson, there isn't one right way to parent a gender diverse teen.

In addition to being transgender herself, Tomson is a primary care general practitioner who runs a gender-affirming practice in Sea Point. As a result, she consults with parents of trans teens daily, aware of the ever-present weight they carry to do right by their kids.

"The first thing you need to do is throw the notion of the perfect parent out of the window. It might sound trite, but it's actually a rather salient point, because parents take so much of this responsibility on themselves," she says.

Tomson notes how most parents conceptualise their child's identification as gender diverse as a single moment in time. Rather, she explains that supporting your child in their trans or nonbinary journey should not rest on one decision, or conversation. It's a journey and a process, rather than one moment in time that you can't come back from.

"This is not about what you do or decide in front of me in the doctor's office. It's about the conversations you have with your child, and the relationship that you develop over time. It's about the way you start building an affirmative and supportive space for them."

According to Tomson, whichever road you decide to take on the journey is not what's important here. Rather, it's about the tools and resources you have at your disposal. It's about the systems that you're putting in place to have open communication with your child.

"You can always figure out if the decision you make today continues to be the correct decision that you make tomorrow, or in two weeks or a year from now. It's not this one moment in time that sets the rest of your destiny in stone, never to be undone," she says.

Find our transgender support resources here: Crossing the Divide 

Process your own stuff

Counselling psychologist Jonathan Bosworth adds that if we're aiming to best support our teens, we need to look at ourselves first.

"It's important for you to get support. Part of our growth as parents is to understand why we might be feeling anxious, angry, sad or defensive. And we need to process that, because it's very easy to put it all on a child. But if what you're feeling about something is more about your own feelings and fears than your child's personal experience, it can cause a lot of damage."

Bosworth urges each parent to process what they are feeling, adding that all feelings are valid. As someone who co-facilitates a parent support group for parents of trans and nonbinary children, he sees the value in seeking out the support of others who might be going – and growing – through a similar experience.

"Parents often need a lot more support because of how foreign gender diversity or gender fluidity is to us. We all have our built-in prejudices. We grew up in a very different time. But therapy and support groups allow you to talk about why you're struggling with something, and to question why you might be struggling with it."

Interrogate your core beliefs and values

Tomson agrees that the best way for parents of trans and nonbinary children to empower themselves is through introspection and interrogation of the self.

"We need to disarm the decision-making process here. Let's put less of a burden on making the 'right' call and more of an emphasis on interrogating the ideas that we hold up. What masculinity is. What femininity is. What sexuality is."

Highlighting the rampant misogyny, gender-based violence and toxic masculinity that pervades our world, Tomson points out how our personal biases and prejudices might actually be informing these issues.

"If we hadn't taught boys for generations that they shouldn't express their feelings and that they should objectify women, or that certain toys and clothes are for certain genders, how much less of this baggage would we be carrying around in this day and age?"

According to Tomson, gender matters and the plight of trans and nonbinary kids to be heard, affirmed, understood and accepted intersects with a host of social issues that plague modern society. Our core values and endemic beliefs about things like race, religion, gender, education and relationships, to name a few, inform the way we frame gender identity.

Interrogating these ideas, figuring out what we think and believe, why we believe it, and deciding if it still aligns with our values, is the first step parents need to take if they want to authentically support their gender-diverse teen.

"Equally important is that you afford your child the same opportunity to introspect, develop and grow, and to figure out what is really true to their identity and their selves," says Tomson.

Be open to who your child is, not who you expect them to be

As parents we all have certain hopes for our children, often determined by our own experiences. We all have an idea of who we want or anticipate our children to be. But, says Bosworth, it's important to be mindful that your expectations don't necessarily align with who your child really is.

Rather, the goal should be to maintain a close relationship with your child and to be open-minded enough to see them as they are, and not as you expect them to be.

"Children need to know that they can rely on their parental relationships to help guide them and support them as they go through the different stages of exploration and adolescence. Let your child know that they can exist in different ways, and that you still love and care for them regardless of how they identify and express themselves, as long as they are not hurting themselves or somebody else," says Bosworth.

How to be an ally

We will never be able to spare our children from all trauma, as much as we want to. That remains especially true for parents of gender-diverse kids. However, sparing our kids from trauma reflects what we want out of the situation. So what is it that our children might want as they navigate the challenges and difficulties of being trans in the current climate?

For Tomson, it was constant, unconditional love and presence.

"More than I would have wanted someone to take the pain away as if it never happened, I would have wanted to know that there was someone in my corner. Someone going through it with me, supporting me, listening to me. Someone who said, 'that's terrible, and it sucks and you don't have to go through it alone'. Because there are just some things that we can't change."

Tomson emphasises that the 'right' way to parent a trans child is not in making an absolute decision that may or may not be life altering for them. Rather, it's in the way parents interact with their children, how they listen to them and how they show compassion and solidarity.

She believes a parent's love and support should never be predicated on whether your child fits into society's historical notions of what's acceptable in terms of gender identity and sexuality.

"That's what allyship is. I don't think that, as a parent, you have a responsibility to be an activist. But I do think you have a responsibility to be an ally. You have to be in your kid's corner and you have to have their back, unconditionally." 

Find our transgender support resources here: Crossing the Divide 

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