It’s important to begin by responding to your daughter’s assertions respectfully and in the most cool-headed and non-reactive manner possible. If you’ve already had a blow-up with her – if there’s been shouting, manipulating, or shaming one another – you may need to ask for forgiveness and request the opportunity to start over on different footing. To the extent you are able, resolve with your daughter to refrain from this sort of hurtful and unproductive conflict; it doesn’t resolve the situation and only distances you from one another. Very little will be accomplished unless you bring your calmest, best self to the conversation.
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.
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 that 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. 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 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.
Make an attempt to get a sense of the “bigger picture.” Encourage your daughter to join you in finding out exactly what’s going on inside her mind and body before jumping to conclusions. It’s possible that she’s simply going through some of the physical, mental, and emotional confusion that comes with puberty and the release of new hormones in the body. Help her understand that a lot of things are in flux during the adolescent years.
It might also be a good idea to ask her if she would be willing to sit down with you and an objective third party – perhaps a doctor, a pediatrician, or a trained Christian counselor – to discuss her feelings at greater length. Be sure, however, to find out where they stand on this issue. Don’t entrust your daughter to someone who will affirm and encourage her rejection of her own femaleness and femininity. Also avoid counsel that heaps on shame or gives simplistic answers. Before committing to a course of therapy, ask the potential counselor about their training and perspective on transgenderism and how they would approach it in a clinical or medical context. If necessary, show them some of Focus on the Family’s materials on the subject (we’d especially recommend our series of articles on Transgenderism) and say, “Does this analysis resonate with you?” If not, look for a professional who can work with your family on the level of your own faith commitment while maintaining a gentle and compassionate approach to the needs of your daughter and your family.
It’s important for you to understand that gender confusion and transgenderism are distinct issues from homosexuality. They often operate independently of one another. In certain respects transgenderism may at times be more complicated, having little or nothing to do with same-sex attractions or sexual behaviors. You and the professionals with whom you are working will want to keep this in mind.
After pursuing some of these avenues for help, have another discussion with your daughter. Remind her of the principle you’ve already established: “loving unconditionally does not mean loving without concern.” On the basis of this understanding, let her know that you’d like to make a request. Say something like, “We know we can’t control your feelings or perceptions, but we’ve learned from experience that it’s a good idea to go slow when making big 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.’ 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 without assigning them to any specific category or putting a label on herself. It’s vital, of course, that you follow this up by doing everything you can to help your daughter feel better about herself without labels.
Meanwhile, let her know that as long as you are responsible for her well-being (especially as a minor), you will not permit her to make any physiological changes to her body that would disrupt her natural development. Clothing and hairstyles may be negotiable, but she should understand that adolescence is a period of significant bodily growth and development. Tell her that, due to your concern for her physical and mental health, you cannot allow her to interfere with those natural physical changes in any way, whether through surgery, hormone therapy, puberty blockers, or even something as simple as breast-binding.
A final 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 is 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.”
In closing, we can’t overemphasize the importance of getting 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.
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