Care and Feeding

I Want to Help My Trans Child Thrive

What should I do?

A mother puts her arm around her child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My younger child, who has just turned 12, has declared himself to be a boy. Biologically, he is a girl, and until he was in fifth grade, his father and I had no notion of his identifying as a boy. He has asked me how I know I’m a girl; my basic answer is, I’ve got the parts. I’ve asked him how he knows he’s a boy, and he can’t articulate what’s going on for him. His older sister identifies as queer (nonbinary/asexual), and positively encourages his identity, as does his current school. He dresses mostly androgynously, with forays into florals and dresses on occasion. His behavior doesn’t fit that which is generally thought to be more masculine in our culture. He dislikes competition, noise, and aggression. He goes to a small, accepting private school where I believe he is safe, but after eighth grade, he will have to go to a high school that may not be so enlightened. I fear for his safety (I think of Boys Don’t Cry often) and for his well-being if other children give him a hard time. I worry particularly about the higher suicide rate among trans kids, but my child’s well-being isn’t just about staying alive, it’s about thriving. How can I help my child thrive? Why is this a trend among preteens and teens? I’ve talked to other parents and grandparents who are seeing this phenomenon in the children in their lives, and who are also unsure what to make of their situations. Are our children rejecting their bodies because they are hitting puberty before they’re emotionally ready? Please help!

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—Struggling in Sacramento

Dear Struggling,

First: I do not believe this is a “trend.” I have said this before, and I will say it until I am hoarse: The difference between now and “then”—whatever your own personal “then” is—is not that there are suddenly more trans kids, and more kids who are queer in other ways, than there used to be. The difference is that they now have the language to speak up about it. They can see others who are out and recognize themselves in them. A place exists for them in a society that used to pretend they didn’t exist.

I think you are focusing on the wrong potential harm to your child (though I completely get that this is coming from a place of genuine concern, worry, and love). Rather than contemplating his future in a high school that may not be as enlightened as his current school, rather than thinking about a movie that was released 23 years ago—a different era in terms of LGBTQ+ representation in popular culture—think about the harm to your child (to any child—to anyone) that would be caused if he felt he could not be who he feels himself to be. I am not suggesting that you’re wrong about high school, or that it would not be worth contemplating other high school options if the school you’re currently planning on sending him to seems likely not to be a welcoming place; I am certainly not suggesting that you’re wrong about trans kids being at higher risk for suicide. But trans kids are not at risk for suicide because they are trans; they are at risk because of their mistreatment. In other words: your worries about your child’s safety and well-being are not unfounded—but because he cannot decide not to be trans, these are worries that are of no help to him. Focus your attention on what you can do to support him. Many studies have shown that such parental acceptance is crucial, and in the absence of other social support, your support provides a bulwark.

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Your ”basic answer” when he asks you how you know “you’re a girl” is insufficient, I’m afraid. If you want to give your son a fighting chance of a happy and healthy life, it’s time to educate yourself about gender identity and its relationship to “the parts” (which so many of us once assumed were the whole story). I wrote at some length last Sunday about what it means to be nonbinary (perhaps this will help you understand and support your older child?) but I barely scratched the surface of a discussion of gender identity. A place to start—for a succinct, easy-to-understand explanation—might be Planned Parenthood’s website. But I’d also take a look at Rhea Ewing’s Fine, Juno Roche’s Gender Explorers, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, and Iris Gottlieb’s Seeing Gender. Some (or all) of these will also be great books to share with your child. And most important: listen to your child himself. He is telling you who he is. Your role here is to pay attention to that, to take it seriously, and to offer him your full acceptance, support, and unwavering love. Will he always be who he is today? I don’t know. But if his sense of himself changes over time, your role doesn’t. You can’t protect him from the world around him—though you can and should do everything possible to try—but you can protect him from feeling alone, lost, misunderstood, disrespected, and unloved at home, simply by doing what a parent is meant to do: love him for who he is.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I was conceived as the accidental result of a casual relationship that dissolved shortly after my birth. Later, my dad married and had three other kids. I was never really part of this family. I was with them one weekend a month per the custody agreement, but never invited on family vacations or included in the yearly Christmas card. Now that I am an adult, we have a friendly but distant relationship. I visit my father’s family once or twice a year and call every few months, though they’ve only visited me a few times over the last 15 years and have rarely called. I long ago made my peace with all of this. But things changed dramatically when I told them I was pregnant. My dad and stepmom are SO excited to welcome their first grandchild. They call me once a week and constantly ask me to come visit. My stepmom is always texting asking for ultrasound photos or baby bump photos or for updates on the nursery or whatever. I should be happy that they are excited to be grandparents, and I want my kid to have loving grandparents! But instead I feel deeply uncomfortable. Do they really care about me at all, or am I just a vessel for the baby, who is the one they actually care about? I am so busy with getting everything ready before the baby comes, and I feel emotionally overwhelmed trying to sort my feelings out about this on top of it. I’m also suspicious about how long this sudden interest will last and am afraid of being disappointed later. I don’t know how to think about any of this or how much to let them into our life. Do you have any advice for me?

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—Emotional 180

Dear Emotional,

First, let’s take what you “should” feel off the table. You feel what you feel, and I’m not surprised that you feel uncomfortable, overwhelmed, and suspicious, or that you want to protect yourself from disappointment. Second, you get to control how much access and involvement your father and stepmother will have with your pregnancy and with your child. And third, you don’t have to make a decision about this now that you stick to forever. You can decide to keep them at arm’s length now (or at half an arm’s length, or whatever feels right to you) and then decide later to tentatively offer more access and see how that feels (and withdraw it if it doesn’t feel right!). I can’t tell you, of course, whether they really care about you—if something has been awakened in them at long last—or if they are seeing you only as a vessel for their future grandchild. But these aren’t the only two possibilities. I am an optimist, and thus I try to imagine the best possible scenario or explanation for any given situation. I suppose it’s possible that previous circumstances (the custody arrangement, family dynamics) have made it difficult for them to know how to express their love or interest, and your pregnancy has given them the “excuse,” or just the opportunity (as they see it) to jump in. But I am a realistic optimist, so I know it is equally possible that they are responding only to the novelty of the situation and that they will indeed disappoint you, especially once their younger children provide them with grandchildren. Rather than try to figure this out on your own, why not consider having an honest conversation with them about the way you feel? They may get defensive; they may deny that they excluded you, or bombard you with rationalizations for it. But if you want to go slow—which is what I would advise—and offer them somewhat less contact (and updates and photos) than they would like right now, providing context for your decision will be helpful. While it cannot possibly come as news to them that you have noticed that they’ve treated you differently from your stepsiblings, they may not know how much that has hurt you. Tell them. Then see what happens and proceed accordingly.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve just cut ties with my grandmother, and I’m not sure whether I made the right choice. My grandmother has always been like a second mother to me, but she’s a deeply bitter, manipulative, and selfish person. Since we’ve always had a special relationship, I fooled myself into thinking she couldn’t hurt me the way I’ve seen her very deeply hurt so many others (including my mother and sister) but of course my time finally came.

My fiancé and I got engaged a year and a half ago (our wedding is three weeks away), and she’s been continually offering excuses not to come to the wedding. Her first excuse was that her ex-husband’s wife might be there (she won’t). Next, it was because her ex-husband’s daughter, who was conceived during his affair back in the 70s, would be there (she’s a sweet woman who obviously had no say in the matter of being born). Her final excuse: she broke her wrist a few months ago (she’s been cleared by multiple doctors and physical therapists who have outright encouraged her to attend). I wrote her a letter telling her how much her not wanting to be there for me has hurt me, and telling her just how big a deal this is. She ignored it. So I showed up at her doorstep today and told her how she’d made me feel. During that conversation, she dug into her excuses, but still insisted that she’ll “always be there for me”—only that’s obviously not true.

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I ended the conversation telling her that because of how she’s hurt me, I wouldn’t be able to keep her in my life. Because only those who actually show up for us and care about us deserve to be in our lives, right? But I just don’t know. While I rationally feel I made the “right” choice, I’m really struggling with this void I feel in my heart. I mean, she’s my grandma! I know I could “rekindle” a relationship with her down the road, but for me to feel good doing that I’d need her to actually apologize for how she’s hurt me—and she never apologizes for anything. I don’t want a superficial relationship with someone who doesn’t respect me or care about me. Did I make the right choice?

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—Grieving Granddaughter

Dear Grieving,

Allow me to point out (again; see my response to Emotional 180 above) that no decision you make about your grandmother is immutable or irrevocable. You can decide not to be in contact with her now and to resume contact later. You can decide to walk back your decision to cut her out of your life and then cut her out later. You can decide to keep her in your life but put certain boundaries in place. Etc. We often feel like we have to make a decision once and for all but that is rarely true. Very few decisions cannot be undone.

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Another piece of this jigsaw puzzle is your sense of what you are supposed to do (if someone doesn’t “show up for” you, you are supposed to cut ties with her). Don’t worry about such rules or blanket advice—they don’t take individual human beings and their relationships into account. Look, I don’t know why your grandmother is behaving this way right now. On the surface of it, it makes no sense (if you have been the one exception to her own rule of treating people badly). But something is going on. If I were you, I would ask her forthrightly. “Grandma, I love you. It’s clear you’re making excuses about my wedding, and I just want to know why you really don’t want to come.” There must be a reason. It may not be a reason that seems logical to you (it may not be a reason that is logical, period), but there is one. Does she feel that her relationship with you—the only one in the family with whom she is close—is endangered by your getting married? Is she afraid she will be left out of your life? Or is something else entirely going on? Does she attend family gatherings of any kind, ever? Does she attend any events when a lot of people are present? Do they make her uncomfortable, or fearful?

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Possibly none of these things are true—possibly she really is just a mean old woman and you’re right, her “true nature” is at last emerging. But given that she has been “like a mother” to you, and that you are now grieving at a time when you’d hoped to be full of joy, it’s worth doing a little digging. And even if you conclude that, nope, there is no “real reason” except plain selfishness and ugliness, which mysteriously had not played a part in your relationship with her until now, and you can’t bear to be in contact with her, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to your guns if it turns out you miss her. Be gentle with yourself. (That is one of the few rules about how to live that I subscribe to. That, and these: Be kind to others. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Treat everyone with respect. And don’t be afraid to ask that others treat you with respect, too.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

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My son is almost six. From day one, he has always preferred my husband to me. I’ve been hearing from everyone how this is only a phase, but I don’t get the impression it will change. Even when my husband is frustrated with him, my son still prefers him over me. Neither of us hits or screams at him, but when there is discipline to impose, it’s my husband who generally does it so that I don’t look like the bad guy. None of this seems to make any difference. I’m always there for him if he wants me; I try to get interested in what he likes and plan Mommy time around that—still, at best, he tolerates me as a way of biding time until Daddy returns. At this point, I don’t see any reason to continue forcing him to spend time with me. I’m not willing to wait and see if he comes around, as the pediatrician says I should, because who knows if he ever will. It’s one of the reasons I’m considering leaving my marriage (not the only one), and if I do, I will give up my parental rights because it’s only going to get worse if we split: he will certainly not want to leave his father to spend time alone with me. I know that abandoning a child sounds like a dreadful thing to do, but this is a child who truly dislikes me (he even prefers if I don’t have dinner with him and my husband). I’m confident that if I leave my son permanently, I will be able to look him in the eye at 30 and say, “Even though you were six, you chose this.” Please don’t tell me to consult a therapist. We’ve already been to counseling: my son ended up preferring the counselor to me. My husband is convinced I’m doing something to make my son feel this way, but we don’t know what that could be and neither did the therapist. I’m not seeing other options aside from leaving or being invisible in my own home.

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—Unwanted Mother

Dear Unwanted,

Well, I do think it would be helpful for your son to be seeing a therapist—for his own sake, not for yours (I don’t think his preferring the counselor to you means that therapy was a failure, although I recognize that it didn’t do anything to make you feel better or to improve your marriage). In your shoes, I would have my child in weekly therapy with a therapist who comes highly recommended and who specializes in seeing children. In your shoes, I would also wait this out and see what therapy ultimately reveals. But then I have no idea what the other factors are that have you considering leaving your marriage, nor can I picture what the last six years have been like if your child has preferred his father to you since “day one.”

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I realize that I am experiencing a failure of imagination here, but this doesn’t surprise me. I just wrote an entire novel that explored (among other matters of family and other relationships) mothers leaving their children, but it is the abandoned children who are among my protagonists, not the mothers who left. I realized while writing that book that I could not enter the consciousness of those mothers, because I didn’t know how to. It doesn’t help you, I know, for me to say that I can’t imagine doing what you are contemplating doing. But perhaps it will help if I tell you that giving up your son will have irrevocable repercussions that you can never, ever take back or repair. This is something that cannot be undone. Looking your son in the eye 24 years from now and telling him that he drove you away will not help him be at peace with your having abandoned him; it will be an effort to absolve yourself of doing something truly awful.

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Walking away from a marriage that is making you unhappy is one thing; walking away from a child is something else entirely. Aren’t you perhaps looking for a way out of what you describe as a bad marriage? What if your one-on-one time with your child, in the wake of a divorce, brought you closer to him? Do you want to be close to him? Do you want to be his mother? If the answers to these questions are no, I hope you will seek help, both for your own sake—because this, it seems to me, would be a very painful place to be—and for your child’s.

—Michelle

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