By: Rebecca Zingarelli, MA, LPCC
Photo by cottonbro studio
Whether your child has existed as their true gender identity for years or this is the first year, spending time with extended family during the holidays can spark anxiety and discomfort if someone doesn’t fully respect your child’s identity. Here are some tips to help protect your trans child when navigating holiday family gatherings…
Be prepared and make a plan: First things first, talk to your child about who they want to know about their identity and how they want to tell them. Don’t share for your child without their permission. Depending on age and comfort level, they might want you to be involved with the conversation, or they might want to disclose independently. Discuss who they’d like to tell, and make sure when disclosing the news to mention that this is news for their ears only and not to tell anyone else. For group gatherings that might be mixed with people that know and people that don’t know, be sure to remind the people who know to use the child’s old name and pronouns (if your child doesn’t want to share with the whole family).
What about when people make language-based mistakes?: A new name and pronouns aren’t going to be automatic for anyone. Mistakes will be made. If you know a person is trying, give them grace and use gentle reminders. Someone may make a big deal about accidentally using the wrong pronouns or name and say something like, “I’m so sorry! This is just so hard for me!.” The best response is to gently say, “I know you’re trying. Don’t apologize, just say ‘thank you for correcting me’ and move on.” This helps give people the language to use to acknowledge their mistake without making a scene and without shifting the blame to your trans kiddo.
The D word - when someone brings up the Trans “Debate”: “Debating” someone’s existence is never appropriate or respectful, no matter what environment you’re in. Hopefully, your family is loving, accepting, and supportive from the beginning and this isn’t a concern for you. Unfortunately, most families have an agitator (and you know who they are and what they’re capable of saying). If someone wants to engage in a conversation or debate about sports bans, medical bans, or whether or not trans people even exist, it’s ok to step in and be firm about shutting down the conversation. My typical response to people wanting to debate is, “I’ve found that when people want to debate the validity of trans kids, they’re using the word ‘debate’ to legitimize their bigotry or ignorance on the subject. This isn’t a debatable topic. If you’d like to understand what the trans experience is like from my perspective, I’ll gladly schedule a time to talk, but now isn’t the best time and place.”
If someone says “This is just a phase.”: While most supportive parents with trans kids know their child isn’t “going through a phase” it’s hard to convince others of it. In this instance, it’s best not to try to defend or share details. Respond with a statement like, “You know, I’m not sure that it is. If it is a phase, I’m proud that my child knows that I support them unconditionally and that’s what matters most. I’d love it if they knew they had your support too. Being supportive at this point is more important than being “right”.
When religion is the issue: At times, people can use their religion to try to justify not respecting someone’s identity and will use phrases like, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Sometimes using their exact statement right back at them will shut them down, at least for the moment. Say something like, “You’re right, God doesn’t make mistakes and has made my child exactly the way he/she/they are supposed to be. Jesus taught us to be respectful and kind to all. All we are asking is for you to extend the same courtesy Jesus would have.”
When someone brings up genitalia: Ugh, this is the worst. If anyone brings up your child’s genitals (believe it or not, it can happen) there’s nothing that shuts the conversation down like boomeranging the question/comment back to their own genitals or making a statement like “I don’t appreciate that you’re actively thinking of my child’s penis/vagina. It’s inappropriate.”
What to do when there’s refusal to respect the name and pronouns: Every so often we come across a person who just doesn’t respond to any plea for respect or decency. You should have a plan for what you’re going to do if you show up and your child is not respected. Step in and advocate for your child. Seeing you stand up for them is an important part of being a parent of a trans child. Have a plan in place the whole family can agree on if it comes down to making a decision to leave early. Maybe take two cars if there are multiple siblings who can’t agree. Have an alternative plan for the exiting parent and child that is fun and special. This way, they don’t feel as though they are being punished even if it’s their choice to leave. Even though the worst case scenario doesn’t normally happen, being prepared avoids the chaos of the unknown.
Setting and keeping boundaries such as these is a key function of any healthy relationship. If the language in this article is too sharp for you, please take the general principles and use language that is more comfortable for you. The holidays are a time for connection with loved ones. By using the above tips and tricks, you can make the holiday season the most connected one yet for your trans child and their family members.
Rebecca Zingarelli is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who lives and works in the Oakley area of Cincinnati. Rebecca works with clients of all ages who struggle with anxiety, depression, LGBTQ+ concerns, transitions, and stress. If you feel you would like to explore your feelings further regarding the trans experience or for any other reason, Rebecca is accepting new clients and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 513-589-6868 ext. 5.