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Ask Izzy: Approaching and accepting your daughter's transition

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Photo by Alex Green / Pexels
Photo by Alex Green / Pexels

Ask Izzy is a biweekly advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets. Submit your question today by emailing [email protected] with the subject "Ask Izzy."

Dear Izzy,

Our daughter (born male) left her mother's home recently, we think because of a fallout over coming out. She also cut contact with us (dad and stepmother) with no explanation. We filed a missing person report. Her mother didn't. The detective told us she is alive and well and going by female pronouns now but couldn't release contact information. We want to support our daughter and be there for her in any way possible. How do we approach her and make sure she knows we accept her and just want a chance to know her and be part of her life?

— Worried Parents in Puyallup

Dear Worried,

When a loved one goes through a gender transition, or really a transition of any kind, it impacts the whole family unit. It takes an open heart, and a whole lot of empathy.

To help you with your specific scenario, I reached out to Lana Lipe, LCSW, owner of Honu Therapy in Honolulu for some tips. "When it comes to supporting Transgender youth, it is important to recognize that each individual's journey and experiences will be unique to them," Lipe stated.

Once you understand that, there are some best practices that you can follow to ensure that you are being supportive and affirming of your child's identity.

Educate yourself
First and foremost, it is crucial to be accepting of your child and their gender identity. This means using the name and pronouns that they use to describe themselves and avoiding any language or behavior that would invalidate or disrespect their identity.

In order to better understand and support your child, it is also important to educate yourself about transgender identities and experiences.

In the case of this specific scenario, it sounds like the daughter has already expressed her gender identity and has begun socially coming out. The fact that you are referring to her as "born male" suggests that you may not be fully accepting or understanding of her identity. It's important to recognize that your daughter's gender identity is not a choice or a lifestyle but rather an innate aspect of who she is.

Note that it can also be unsafe to share with others those details about your child, who may not have consented to sharing that information.

Approach with empathy
When reaching out to your daughter, approach the conversation with empathy and understanding. Acknowledge that she may have experienced fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and validate her emotions. You can take it a step further and actually ask your daughter how you can best be there for her during this time.

"It is important to approach this with sensitivity, as the daughter may have experienced rejection or discrimination in the past due to her identity. It may be helpful to reach out through a nonconfrontational medium, such as a letter or email, to give her space and time to respond," Lipe advises.

Let her know that you are open to listening, learning, and supporting her in any way she needs. If you need a refresher on what exactly it means to be empathic, look up the video "RSA Shorts, Dr Brené Brown, 'The Power of Empathy'" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jz1g1SpD9Zo). I've been thinking about it for weeks!

Respect her boundaries
"In this scenario, it is important to acknowledge the daughter's agency and autonomy," Lipe recommends. "The fact that she has cut contact may indicate that she does not feel safe or supported in her parents' homes. The parents should prioritize creating a safe and affirming environment for their daughter and should be open to the idea of reconciling on her terms, rather than imposing their own expectations or timeline."

Seek professional guidance
Consider suggesting therapy or counseling for your family, both individually and collectively. A professional therapist, especially one who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, can provide guidance, facilitate open communication, and help all parties navigate the complexities of the situation. This demonstrates your commitment to personal growth and understanding.

Reflect on past actions
Take the opportunity to reflect on your past interactions and any possible mistakes or misunderstandings that may have contributed to the fallout. Apologize if you believe you've acted inappropriately or hurtfully, emphasizing your willingness to learn and grow from those experiences.

Connect through shared interests
Find common interests or activities that you can engage in together. It could be anything from hobbies to favorite TV shows, movies, or books. These shared experiences can help strengthen the bond between you and create opportunities for meaningful conversations.

Celebrate milestones
When your daughter reaches significant milestones or achievements, such as legal name changes or medical transitions, celebrate them with her. This demonstrates your support and pride in her journey. Respect her decisions, and offer assistance if she requests it.

Overall, approaching your daughter with love, acceptance, and a desire to be part of her life is commendable. Remember that every person's journey is unique, and it may take time for her to fully trust and reconnect. By educating yourselves, demonstrating empathy, and expressing unconditional acceptance, you can lay a foundation for a renewed relationship built on love, understanding, and support. Patience, persistence, and open communication will be key as you navigate this journey together, allowing your daughter to feel accepted, valued, and cherished as she continues her transition.

For further reading, the Transfamily Support Services organization recommends: Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan, and The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie A. Brill and Rachel Pepper.