As a parent, how do I better connect with my trans kid?

Dear Ismael,

As a middle-aged dad, how should I engage with my trans 21-year-old who doesn’t reply to my texts (yet expects me to pay for their college education)?

— Long-Distance Dad in Naperville

Dear Long-Distance Dad,

I used to be a big “first day of school” crier up until sixth grade.

I hated school, and loved being home watching trashy court TV with my mom. She was my best friend, and I didn’t want to leave her side.

When I was 18, I cried again — just a little this time, guys — when I left home for college. But I quickly got over feeling homesick, and suddenly, the last thing I wanted to do was call the people I’d seen every day for almost two decades.

I’d say your 21-year-old’s behavior is pretty normal. However, I am not a father, let alone a father of a trans individual. To help you and other future parents see what is normal young adult behavior, I spoke to a couple of parents. One has a 20-year-old trans son and the other a 21-year-old trans son; both came out in their teens.

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“Children are children first. They act like a toddler when they’re a toddler, and act like a teenager when they’re a teenager,” said Sarah, mother of the 20-year-old and board member of the Oak Park chapter of PFLAG, an organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them. “Certainly, we have additional things we’re worried about. Every parent worries about their child’s safety, but when you have a transgender child, there’s a portion of society that is negative toward them. So, that is an extra element of anxiety.”

Consistent, not constant communication

Respecting your child’s boundaries is challenging but important. A good way to not smother them, and recognize them as independent adults, is to schedule a time to talk to your college kid.

“Set up a weekly time because during the week, they’re gonna be distracted, learning new things and meeting new people,” Sarah said. “So, if you’re texting and hoping your child is going to respond immediately, they might not be able to.”

Set a time that’s consistent but not constant; that way they have space and you have some peace of mind. Maybe Sundays at 3 p.m.?

Support groups

Sometimes you have children who prolong coming out — even waiting until their parents die — because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings with their transition. There also are supportive parents who need to process saying goodbye to the name they gave their child, or say goodbye to family photos that might make their children uncomfortable after they transition.

These situations are common, but not the easiest thing to talk between child and parent, said Bob, a dad who has unconditional love for his son even though they aren’t the best at texting back either.

He said calling his son by a different name with different pronouns was like learning how to write with his left hand, but it’s possible. However, when he needed to talk openly about the emotional effects the transition had on him, he confided in a sub-chapter of PFLAG called Parents of Transgender Individuals.

“The group gives you an opportunity to say the things you couldn’t say to your kid,” Bob said.

My mom still worries about what I’m doing at 32, just as you worry about how you can engage better with your young adult.

If uncertainty is weighing on you, there are like-minded people willing to help. If it’s no big deal, I’m sure your kid would appreciate you asking instead of assuming something is wrong.

Let’s just hope they pick up the phone on Sunday.

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