Family Basics

Family Basics - Introduction

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  1. Reflect on your own feelings/questions/concerns about having a trans family member
  2. Consider what feelings/questions/concerns your trans family member may be experiencing
  3. Consider what feelings/questions/concerns your other family members may be experiencing in relation to having a trans family member
  4. Identify your family’s behaviours that support your trans family member
  5. Identify where to learn more in relation to families who have a trans family member
  6. Know where to access additional support for your family

Part 1A. Learning you have a trans family member

Research has shown that families can experience a wide range of emotions and reactions to learning they have a transgender family member. This is described as a time of transition, not just for the trans individual, but also the whole family12. Some of the findings from these studies are described below:

  • Some studies have described the time as a process of confusion or turmoil, followed by negotiation, and finally acceptance1-5.
  • Other have shown that families who have a transgender family member, may experience feelings similar to grief and loss felt when going through a bereavement. These feelings include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance2, 6-11. Others may feel shame, embarrassment or guilt12-13.
  • Other studies have shown that families may not experience any of these difficult feelings, and they may quickly move from a point of learning their family member is transgender to acceptance and support 12-15, 8-9, 4, 16-17. These family members may already have an understanding of gender variance to come to terms more quickly with their family member’s gender identity12.
  • Many families are described as experiencing different emotions at different times. The process towards acceptance is described as fluid, evolving, and dynamic and even within families, different family members can experience quite different feelings at the same time 1-2, 11, 15.
  • The majority of families in these studies do reach a place of acceptance, with some families experiencing personal growth and positive emotions, such as growing closer to the family and their trans family member, feelings of pride, and increased compassion 18.

Conclusion: From these studies, it is clear that there is no one right way to feel about learning you have a transgender family member. It is important that you allow yourself to feel however you are feeling and start from there.

Sources: 1 Gray et al. 2015; 2 Gregor et al. 2015; 3 Kuvlanka et al. 2014; 4 Polat et al. 2005; 5 Riggs and Due 2015; 6 Ellis and Eriksen 2002; 7 Gregor 2013; 8 Norwood 2013; 9 Pearlman 2006; 10 Tanner and Lyness 2004; 11 Wren 2002; 12 Brill and Pepper 2008; 13 Menvielle and Hill 2010; 14 Hill and Menvielle 2009; 15 Meadow 2011; 16 Pullen Sansfacon; 17 Riley et al. 2011; 18 Gonzalez et al. 2013. Full references included at the end of the module

Part 1B: Family experiences

3 Kuvlanka et al. 2014; 5 Riggs and Due 2015; 11 Wren 2002; 12 Brill and Pepper 2008; 13 Hill and Menvielle 2009; 19 Pullen Sansfacon et al.; 20 Factor Rothblum 2008. Full references included at the end of the module

Personal Stories

In this part, take some time to read stories from other families about their experiences of finding out they had a transgender family member

I found we all responded differently in the family. Some members were on board straight away and others needed more time to process it. My strategy was to model acceptance. If I was fine the rest of the family were too.
Mother of a 20-year old trans young person
Despite her young age, we were beginning to realise that our daughter may be gay but it was a big shock to us when she said she felt she was actually a boy. We found it very hard to think about any positives to this scenario and were very worried about how telling others would affect our family. We knew we would stand with our child no matter what but would others stand with us? We have not encountered any negativity. Everybody is being very supportive, no matter what their age. It felt better after we had told people and we realised that we were not going to be ostracised.
Mother of an 11-year old trans young person
Absolutely shocked but it also explained a lot of underlining behaviours, e.g. isolation, anxiety and depression. Also feeling, oh my god, what do we do now? What will people say? How are we going to tell our family?
Mother of a 20-year old trans young person
When my child first presented, I experienced many different emotions. I was upset and angry that I was losing my hopes and dreams of having a son. I hoped that it was just a phase and maybe he was confused. I was also afraid of the unknown and worried what sort of a future my child would have, how friends and family would treat us in the future.
Father of a 24-year old trans young person
At first we were shocked, but we were only getting over her being diagnosed with [a developmental disorder]…
Mother of a 16-year old trans young person
It was a challenging time for all family members. I decided not to tell my other children and husband until I processed the news and was able to present it positively and with confidence…
Mother of a 20 year-old trans young person
… I told my daughter that they had plenty of time to discover who they are and give it time. A few weeks later she came to me with various scenarios of, ‘Would you still love me if...?’ I gave her plenty reassurance and finally one day she was able to come to me and say ‘Mom, I am Transgender FtM and this is what I have to do and I need your help to do it’. She had all her research done…Straight away as I listened I now recognised my 'son' talking and not my 'daughter', I realised I could see a shift happening in front of me as they were speaking and telling me they wanted help and telling me what I need to be doing to help them. I have always told my children that no matter what, if someone comes and asks you for help, you help them, as asking for help can be a very difficult thing to do sometimes. Now, my child is asking me for my help and I was determined I was not going to let them down. I cried every night for about two weeks as I was so frightened of what kind of a life lay before them, they already had trouble trusting friends, what would my husband say, our families, friends, the neighbours, our community, how will he get a job or pay for the surgeries? The questions were coming and coming over and over and caused many sleepless nights. My new son and I spent every minute we could with each other chatting about the future over many cups of tea. We both seemed to need the reassurance from each other that everything will be okay…[people in support organisations] has been our lifeline.
Mother of an 18-year old trans young person
My son came out to me initially as gay, which I was totally fine with, but about six months later came out as trans. Although it made perfect sense to me, it was devastating news. There was no question that I would support him, I just wasn't sure how to do it. I knew that I would have to advocate for him in the wider community so that people would understand and not isolate him, but I didn't understand it myself and really struggled finding the words to tell people.
Mother of a 20- year old trans young person
As the Mother, I feel heartbroken, I can't believe my baby girl wants to be male.
Mother of a 16-year old trans young person
We had no idea our child was transgender FtM or gender non-conforming. It was never on our radar. We took for granted that there were only two genders, and we had a girl according to her genitals at birth, to put it bluntly. We as parents were never educated to consider that when we were starting a family there could be a slight possibility that we may have a gender non-conforming child as they grew and discovered who they truly are. It was not on our child's radar either, they were in the dark and suffered for so long knowing they felt and thought differently to their friends but didn't know why, so essentially, they were lost. They tried hard to conform to what they thought our expectations were of them, the school's expectations, the expectations of their extended family, their friends, peers etc. The anxiety and stress of living like this and trying to "fit in" caused them to have mental health issues, they considered self-harming and suicide. They tried to confide in their friends at school but they were not equipped to help them but thankfully gave them the advice to go tell someone who could help them.
Mother of an 18-year old trans young person

Experiences of coming out as trans to family

Trans young people also feel a range of emotions when coming out to the family. Many have fears and worries: ‘Will my family understand what it means to be transgender?’ ‘Will they believe me?’ ‘Will my family accept me?’ ‘Will my family still love me?’ ‘‘Will they support me?’ To learn more about mental health and wellbeing issues related to trans young people, please consider reviewing the ‘Health and wellbeing’ module.

In this part, take some time to read stories from transgender young people about their experience coming out to their family as transgender.

Coming out was very hard to family but I had a worst time dealing with it myself. I was scared in what was going on. I didn't wanna deal with it. The hardest part was coming to terms with it myself. I came out to my mother first and she was 100% right there on the spot she already got information about trans before I came out cause she knew something was up so after coming out to my mother everything else was easy.
Trans young person
My family took it very badly…I got abuse for months over it and even though I'm on testosterone eight months, he's [dad] still refusing to even try to use my name and pronouns.
Trans young person
My experiences coming out were fairly negative. My brother who is pretty young accepted me straight away but it took my parents almost a year to try and call me my name and pronouns. They even made jokes on my expense after I came out as trans.
Trans young person
My parents were fantastic and one of my cousins and my great aunt, but the rest of the extended family shunned us.
Trans young person
I am currently still in the closet, my anxiety prevents me from somehow bringing up 'my gender' in conversation with family, I know for a fact they will not accept it, that I'm 'going through a phase' or I'm 'mentally ill'... and I'm really scared of their reaction that's why I keep putting it off.
Trans young person
My older siblings were both incredibly accepting and supportive…When I came out to my mother as genderfluid, she cried and asked me why I couldn't just be happy being a girl…He [dad] told me not to tell any of his friends or our family members. Since then both of my parents still use my [birth name] and she/her pronouns for me, despite me asking them to use they/them pronouns and my chosen name. They threatened to stop supporting me more than they legally have to if I legally change my name.
Trans young person

Activity

Take a minute now to think about your own feelings and reaction to finding out your family member is transgender. If you want to, write down these feelings in a journal or a log that you will keep private. These journals and logs can serve as a space for your own reflections on yours and your family’s experiences. Consider reflecting on the following:

  • Are you feeling any of the emotions presented in this module related to learning a family member is trans?
  • What questions do you have? Do you have any concerns?
  • How do you think other family members might be feeling?
  • How do your feelings relate to those shared by other families in this module?
  • How do you think your trans family member might be feeling?

You do not need to do anything with your reflections just yet, but it can be useful every so often to know where you are at emotionally and reflect on how this is impacting you. Remember this is a process that does not only impact on your family member; it impacts on you, too, and the family as a whole. These reflections could be useful for you in discussions in support groups.

…it is very valuable to keep a log or journal. You can look back every six months and see how far you have come in your journey towards understanding and acceptance. You can also note the progress of your partner or other important family members or friends. Of course, you can also use your journal as a self-reflective tool along the way, or simply as a practical place to notate both your own journey and the markers of your child.
Brill & Pepper, 2008, p.90 of ‘The Transgender Child’

Part 2: What can we do as a family?

Part 2: To learn more

Activity

1: Think about the ways you behave towards your transgender family member. Compile a list of your behaviours that may be considered supportive. Write a plan for increasing these types of supportive behaviours within your family. Make this plan detailed and practical with specific strategies. If any of the supportive family behaviours listed are particularly difficult for you or your family to do, you might seek further help in addressing it.

2: Consider your own support needs and those of other individual members of the family (including siblings). Discuss whether you or any other members of your family may be interested in accessing any of the support listed on this website.

PDF - List of supportive family behaviours.

Part 3: What can we do next?

Steps you may consider taking next include:

  1. Consider whether any person in your family needs additional support. Seek support from the support organisations listed on this website.
  2. Review this website and its content.
  3. Engage in an ongoing dialogue with your family member if they are happy and willing to do so. Review the ‘active listening’ tips at the end of this module for advice.
  4. Consider keeping a journal or log documenting your thoughts, reflections and feelings.
  5. Be as inclusive as you can of all family members, including siblings.
  6. Be as respectful as you can to your family member. Remember even if you can’t be fully accepting right now, it is very important to act respectfully.

Key messages summary

Upon completing this module, you should know:

  • Families can have very different reactions and feelings when learning they have a trans family member. This can be different for each family member and often changes and develops over time.
  • Trans people may have their own worries and challenges about coming out as trans to their family.
  • There a number of behaviours a family can do to help support their trans family member.
  • Resources are available for learning more about trans children and young people.
  • Support is available for trans young people and their families.

There are a number of supports available for transgender people and their family members. Please click here to find their contact information.

Further resources related to this module

Angello, M. and Bowman, A. (2016). Raising the transgender child: A complete guide for parents, families, and caregivers. Berkley, CA, USA; Seal Press.

Brill, S.A. and Kenney, L. (2016). The Transgender Teen. Jersey City, NJ, USA: Cleis Press.

Brill, S. and Pepper, R. (2008). Chapter 2: Family acceptance: From crisis to empowerment in ‘The transgender child: A handbook for families and professional’ by Brill, S. and Pepper, R. [Book available to buy from Amazon.co.uk or other booksellers]

Brill, S. and Pepper, R. (2008). Chapter 4: Start where you are: Moving from damaging to effective parenting practices in ‘The transgender child: A handbook for families and professional’ by Brill, S. and Pepper, R. [Book available to buy from Amazon.co.uk or other booksellers] Ehrensaft, D. (2016). The gender creative child: Pathways for nurturing and supporting children who live outside gender boxes. New York, NY, USA: The Experiment LLC.

Ehrensaft, D. (2011). Gender born, gender made: Raising healthy gender non-conforming children. New York, NY, USA: The Experiment LLC.

Krieger, I. (2011). Helping your transgender teen: A guide for parents. New Haven, CT, USA: Genderwise Press.

Ryan, C. (2009). Supportive families, healthy children: Helping families with lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender children. San Francisco, CA: Family Acceptance Project, Marian Wright Edelman Institute, San Francisco State University. Available at: http://familyproject.sfsu.edu

Podcasts: Mack, M. (2014-2016) ‘How to be a girl’. Available at: https://itunes.apple.com

To learn more about active listening and how it can help in conversations, please visit the websites below:

Grohol, J. (2016). Become a better listener: Active listening. Psych Central. Available at: http://psychcentral.com.

Mind Tools Editorial Team. (2016). Active listening: Hear what people really are saying. Available at: https://www.mindtools.com.

PDF - List of supportive family behaviours.

Sources used in developing this module:

Brill, S. and Pepper, R. (2008). Chapter 2: ‘Family acceptance: From crisis to empowerment’ in ‘The transgender child: A handbook for families and professional’ by Brill, S. and Pepper, R.

Ellis, K.M. & Eriksen, K. (2002) Transsexual and transgenderist experiences and treatment options. Family Journal, 10(3), 289-299.

Gonzalez, K.A., Rostosky, S.S., Odom, R.D. & Riggle, E.D.B. (2013) The positive aspects of being the parent of an LGBTQ child. Family Process, 52(2), 325.

Gray, S.A.O., Sweeney, K.K., Randazzo, R. & Levitt, H.M. (2015) "Am I doing the right thing?": Pathways to parenting a gender variant child. Family Process, 55(1), 1-16.

Gregor, C. (2013) How might parents of pre-pubescent children with gender identity issues understand their experience? University of East London, East London, UK, pp. 223.

Gregor, C., Hingley-Jones, H. & Davidson, S. (2015) Understanding the experience of parents of pre-pubescent children with gender identity issues. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 32(3), 237-246.

Hill, D.B. & Menvielle, E. (2009) "You have to give them a place where they feel protected and safe and loved": The views of parents who have gender-variant children and adolescents. Journal of LGBT Youth, 6(2-3), 243-271.

Kuvalanka, K.A., Weiner, J.L. & Mahan, D. (2014) Child, family, and community transformations: Findings from interviews with mothers of transgender girls. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 10(4), 354-379.

Meadow, T. (2011) 'Deep down where the music plays': How parents account for childhood gender variance. Sexualities, 14(6), 725-747.

Menvielle, E. & Hill, D.B. (2010) An affirmative intervention for families with gender-variant children: A process evaluation. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 15(1), 94-123.

Norwood, K. (2013) Meaning matters: Framing trans identity in the context of family relationships. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 9(2), 152-178.

Pearlman, S.F. (2006) Terms of connection: Mother-talk about female-to-male transgender children. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 2(3-4), 93-122.

Polat, A., Yuksel, S., Discigil, A.G. & Meteris, H. (2005) Family attitudes toward transgendered people in Turkey: experience from a secular Islamic country. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 35(4), 383-393.

Pullen Sansfaçon, A., Robichaud, M.J. & Dumais-Michaud, A.A. (2015) The experience of parents who support their children's gender variance. Journal of LGBT Youth, 12(1), 39-63.

Riggs, D.W. & Due, C. (2015) Support experiences and attitudes of Australian parents of gender variant children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(7), 1999-2007.

Riley, E.A., Sitharthan, G., Clemson, L. & Diamond, M. (2011) The needs of gender-variant children and their parents: A parent survey. International Journal of Sexual Health, 23(3), 181-195.

Subject Matters Experts (SMEs) in Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI).

Tanner, L.R. & Lyness, K.P. (2004) Out of the closet, still in the home. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 15(1), 21-35.

Wren, B. (2002) ‘I can accept my child is transsexual but if I ever see him in a dress I’ll hit him’: Dilemmas in parenting a transgendered adolescent. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 7(3), 377-397.