Child wearing red sneakers choosing between genders

Every parent, as soon as they find out they are going to have a child, imagines what that child will be like. We imagine who they’ll look like, what their interests will be, what they will excel at. And when most parents hear “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” that new information usually gets factored into their imaginations and expectations.

As many parents have come to realize, those joyous announcements of a newborn boy or girl aren’t always accurate. Many children—about 3% of teens and adolescents—don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth based on their external genitalia. That can be bewildering for many parents, who just want the best for their child and worry about hardships a trans or nonbinary child might experience.

Wanting the best for your child is a great place to start. Let’s talk about caring for a nonbinary or transgender child—and what those terms mean.

Language Matters When Discussing Gender Identity

Parents who are trying to get their arms around the idea that their child or a child they love is transgender or nonbinary may struggle to understand what those terms mean, as well as other language they may be unfamiliar with.

What is the difference between “transgender” and “nonbinary?” Transgender means that someone identifies as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth: a transgender boy is usually born with female genitalia; a transgender girl is usually born with male genitalia. “Cisgender” is the term that applies to people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Nonbinary refers to someone whose gender identity lies somewhere between, or outside, the typical “male” and “female” labels. It is possible to be both transgender and nonbinary, since nonbinary people often identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.

While we’re at it, let’s unpack the difference between “gender” and “sex.” Sex refers to biological attributes, such as genitalia. Gender refers to socially constructed roles and identities for men and women. It is perfectly possible to have the biological attributes of one sex and the gender identity of another, or both, or neither. And yes, there are also intersex individuals—those born with genitalia that are neither clearly male or female. Intersex individuals can also be transgender or nonbinary.

To learn more about these and other terms, you can look through a glossary of terms. If your aim is supporting your child, it matters that you are willing to use the right words. That support, and that language, matter a lot. Transgender and nonbinary children and youth are at greater risk of bullying and suicide. Suicide risk goes up if the child’s family is unsupportive or overly hostile to their gender identity. If you are able to offer your trans or nonbinary child unconditional love and support, your home and family become a haven against the hostility and misunderstanding they may encounter elsewhere.

How Do You Know if Your Child is Transgender or Nonbinary?

We have all seen little boys who love dressing up in their mother’s high heels, and little girls who refuse to wear a dress. Does that mean that they are, or are going to be, transgender? Probably not. Experts identify a general rule for determining whether a child is transgender: consistent, insistent, and persistent. A four year old girl who hates wearing dresses and says once or twice that she is a boy is not necessarily transgender. However if she consistently identifies as a boy, is insistent and firm in that identity, and persists in identifying as a boy over months or years, that child might very well be transgender.

Kids who are nonbinary may express that identity later than kids who are transgender, simply because they may lack the words at a young age to express the concept. Nonbinary kids often come out as teens. Even if they understood their gender identity sooner, they may not have told anyone out of shame or fear of rejection.

Many parents wonder if being trans or nonbinary means their child will be gay. Those are two separate things. Trans and nonbinary are about gender identity—how you see yourself. Sexual orientation is about who you’re attracted to.

How to Support your Nonbinary or Transgender Child

You may feel confused or overwhelmed when your child tells you they are transgender or nonbinary—after all, it’s something you probably didn’t expect, and it’s a new and unfamiliar situation. The good news is that you deal with it just as you would any new parenting challenge—by centering on your child, not yourself.

This news isn’t something your child is “doing to” you. They are sharing something about themselves with you, something important. By so doing, they are both showing that they trust you and making themselves vulnerable to your potential disapproval. That’s an honor; some kids don’t trust their parents with that sensitive information. So you’re already doing something right.

Simple ways you can show support for a child who has come out to you as transgender or nonbinary include:

  • Thanking them for being brave enough to tell you. Coming out is hard, and it is brave!
  • Telling them you love them—period. Not that you love them “in spite of” their gender identity.
  • Not trying to shame or change them, especially not with “conversion therapy” that is ineffective for its intended purpose and has proven to be harmful to children’s mental health.
  • Not trying to convince them it’s a phase that they’ll grow out of. If a child comes to feel that they are not transgender, it will not be because anyone talked them out of it.
  • Calling them their chosen name and not insisting on using the name you gave them. Trans people often refer to the name they were given at birth (that went with the gender they were assigned at birth) their “deadname.” Using someone’s deadname when they have told you their preferred name is hurtful and disrespectful.
  • Using your child’s preferred pronouns: he/him, she/her, they. Your child will probably tell you, but if they don’t, ask.
  • Helping your child come out when they are ready to other family members and adults and advocating for your child. Others will take cues about how to treat your child from you. If you treat your child with love and respect, others will, too. If they don’t, your child will know you had their back, and that will mean a lot to them.
  • Educating yourself about the concerns of transgender and nonbinary people, perhaps joining an organization like PFLAG. Learn what schools should be doing to affirm your child and advocate for your child at school, as well as teaching to advocate for themselves.
  • Repeatedly reassuring your child that they have your unconditional love.

Finding out that you have a nonbinary or transgender child may interfere with your expectations for them. Reminding yourself that your primary job is to love whoever they happen to be makes it easier. You will mess up sometimes—accidentally using the wrong pronoun or name. But just apologize and move on. Your child will recognize that you care enough to try to get it right. And as with all of parenting, that’s often what matters most.

If you have questions about this article, please contact Mundahl Law.