Can you help us figure out how to respond to our grown daughter who has told us that she no longer identifies as a woman? At this point we don't know if she's taken steps to alter her physiology, but she has adopted a very "manly" outward appearance in terms of clothing and hairstyle. She has also changed her name and insists that we use only masculine pronouns when referring to her in conversation. I'm devastated by all of this. At some moments I'm so angry I could scream. Other times I just sit and cry. We love our daughter, but we don't want this kind of influence in our home (we still have younger kids in the house). What can we do?
Before saying anything else, we want you to know that our hearts go out to you. Our prayers are with you, and we are privileged to have this opportunity to come alongside you in the midst of your pain and confusion.
The conflicting emotions you're experiencing – crying one moment, angry the next – are common and understandable. Any loving parent in your position might feel similarly. You also may be struggling with grief, the natural reaction that occurs when we've encountered loss. Though you may not yet recognize it, you've lost something significant. It may be the image of and beliefs you had about your daughter, your perceptions of yourself as a parent, or perhaps your desires and hopes for grandchildren. Whatever the case, it's important to identify and acknowledge the reality of these losses.
At some point you'll want to sit down and discuss this matter with your daughter in a calm and non-reactive fashion. Bear in mind that this conversation will probably be ongoing, so don't expect to resolve everything at once. Make allowances for continued tension and grief. This isn't easy, since it's common for parents in your situation to want to react out of the anger, fear, or pain they're feeling.
Remember, too, that you can only control your own choices and actions, not hers. Focus mostly on yourself, especially in allowing Christ's character to guide your attitude and approach. As her parents, commit to working through your own differences so as to be united in your approach and able to speak with one voice. Also consider seeking support for any individuals that might have the maturity to come alongside you in such a difficult season, such as a pastor, mentor, close friend, small group, or existing Christian counselor. Many couples in similar situations feel they don't want to tell anyone, which is understandable. But handling such a difficult situation in isolation from mature relationships with those who share your faith is likely to create the same "vacuum" that has contributed to your daughter's path. Christians make wiser and more well-informed decisions in the context of a grounded and mature faith community, even if that connection is with just one other mature believer. If there is no one that you are willing to trust at this time, consider seeking out a Christian counselor who is knowledgeable about these matters.
If as part of your preparation for a discussion with your daughter you feel the need to educate yourself more thoroughly on the subject of transgenderism, we highly recommend that you visit Focus on the Family's website and take a look at our series of articles on the topic. We think you'll find the first installment, "Male and Female He Created Them: Genesis and God's Design of Two Sexes," especially helpful.
As you move forward, take the initiative by affirming your daughter. Make a sincere effort to connect with her at the heart level. Remain in relationship with her and let her know that nothing can ever make you stop loving her or remove her from God's care. In the process, stay unified as a couple in your attempts to address the situation – it's important to demonstrate that the two of you are on the same page. As the conversation continues, make a conscious effort to use first-person words – "I" and "we" – instead of "you-based" language, which can easily be received as controlling, directive, blaming, shaming, scolding, or self-righteous. Say something like, "We're glad you've shared this with us. We would rather know what you're going through than not know what you're going through, so we're glad you've chosen to talk with us about this issue. We want to be here for you no matter what happens."
Assure her of your love – your continuing, unconditional love – but remind her that loving unconditionally does not mean that you will always agree. God loves us unconditionally, but He also cares deeply about what we do, what we say, and how we view ourselves. Affirming your daughter as a person created in God's image and affirming the permanence of your relationship together is distinct from affirming her views and life decisions as "morally good." Sometimes parents and teens find a need to "agree to disagree" in their emerging adult relationship with one another, especially when it comes to the areas of values and morality. Your unconditional love for your daughter isn't dependent on agreement in such areas.
In this connection, it's important for you to understand that transgenderism and homosexuality are distinct. They often operate independently of one another. In certain respects transgenderism can be the deeper and more complicated issue, having little or nothing to do with same-sex attractions or sexual behaviors. You and the professionals with whom you work need to keep this in mind.
Above all, you need to remind yourself that this is not "all about you." If your adult daughter is drawing conclusions about her sexual identity, she's also old enough to think many independent thoughts and process many sources of input. It's very possible that in the course of your ongoing discussions you may hear your daughter share legitimate concerns from the past. If there are issues related to your relationship for which you have responsibility, seek forgiveness and take steps to make amends with your daughter and any others who may have been hurt by your attitudes and actions. However, don't make the mistake of taking ownership or blaming yourself for your daughter's transgender identity. It's much more complex than that. Besides, it won't do you or anyone else any good to take responsibility for your daughter's choices or to take on a heavy or debilitating burden of false guilt and condemnation. In fact, it will only hinder you from effectively showing her God's love in the here and now.
Even less helpful is the tendency some parents have to view a situation like this as a threat to their image or reputation. Don't fall into that trap. Instead, concentrate on doing whatever it takes to establish yourself on a firm footing and get yourself healthy so that you can be there with your daughter in this moment. Whether you realize it or not, your daughter needs you to demonstrate steady faith and calm integrity, perhaps now more than ever before.
As you talk with your daughter, ask her respectfully if you can make a request. Say, "We know that you're an adult and we can't control your feelings and perceptions, or your choices. At the same time, we've learned from experience that it's always a good idea to go slow when making major life decisions. That's especially true where your sexuality and personal identity are concerned. With that in mind, we want to suggest that you press the 'pause button' before embracing a 'transgender identity' based on what you've been experiencing. You owe it to yourself to filter out all the cultural and political noise on this subject and take an honest look at your options through the lens of your deepest values."
As you go through this process, stress the importance of adopting a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach. In other words, invite your daughter to talk it out in the context of mature relationships rather than act it out. Encourage her openly to express the feelings, wants, hopes, and fears she's going through without assigning them to any specific category or putting a label on herself. Suggest she research the potential detrimental consequences of major medical "solutions" like hormone therapy or "sexual reassignment surgery." It's vital, of course, that you follow all this up by doing everything you can to help your daughter feel better about herself without labels.
Regarding the use of names and pronouns, this is a sticky problem. Equally committed believers often come to different conclusions on such questions. From our perspective, the important thing is to preserve your connection with your daughter by elevating the relationship above other considerations.
Here's a thought that may help: Resist the urge to make her integrity issue your integrity issue. In other words, it's not necessary to assume that you are offending God by calling her "Bill" or "George" if that's what she has specifically requested. But, if you are bothered by this – if you feel as if you're violating your own conscience by using such language – perhaps it's a good idea to candidly say so with compassion ("truth in love"). Sit down with your daughter and explain your feelings as calmly and respectfully as possible. Say something like, "It's obviously taken you a long time to come to this conclusion about your sexual identity. Consider giving us the same amount of time to catch up. Please don't expect us to change our perspective and feelings about you overnight." Express your care and concern while simultaneously doing what you can to slow things down. Ask your daughter if she would be willing to journey with you to a place where you can work through the implications of the situation together. Say, "Our relationship with you matters too much to give you an ill-thought-out answer."
Another important consideration is that of your daughter's personal belief system and faith-commitment. Does she consider herself a Christian? It should be obvious that the answer to this question will have a significant impact upon the nature of your conversations with her. If she does think of herself as a believer, urge her to examine her faith convictions with great care and to give them priority over every other consideration. Encourage her that there's wisdom in giving greater weight to biblical values than to feelings of any kind. End by saying, "We want you to know that we will be reading and learning about this topic because we care about you. If you're willing, maybe we could read and learn together."
Finally, consider arranging a meeting with other members of the immediate family. Use age-appropriate language to tell your younger children that their older sister is going through a difficult time. Details should be made available only on a need-to-know basis. Acknowledge and empathize with your children's emotional reactions to the situation, remembering that each one may need help sorting out his or her feelings. Tell the kids that while you remain committed to biblical standards of morality, you will not stop loving your daughter. Ask the other children to join you in your efforts to treat her with love and respect and in praying for her.
In closing, we can't overemphasize the importance of seeking the help of a professional counselor knowledgeable in this area. Here at Focus on the Family we have a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. If you'd like to discuss your concerns with one of them, you can contact our counselors for a free consultation.