My Child Hates Their Name — Should I Let Them Change it?
Sarah Joseph’s daughter hated her first name pretty much from the start. When she was very young, their relatives would remark that it was “unusual,” and she got similar comments at school.
“She wanted a more common name, so she wouldn’t be singled out or teased by her classmates,” Joseph says. When her daughter started researching names she could switch to, Joseph was initially very resistant. “It felt like such a drastic choice,” she recalls. “I wanted to make sure she understood the implications and permanence of something like that.”
As a parent, choosing a child’s name can be a big, emotional experience — it’s one of the first decisions a parent makes about raising a child. Parents probably love the name they chose, or chose it to honor someone important. If a child rejects that name, it can feel hurtful or shocking.
Still, it’s important to remember that the child is the one who carries their name, every moment, for better or worse. Their reasons for wanting a name change could include teasing or bullying, and shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand. Still, what if a parent goes along with a name-change decision, only to have the child regret it later?
If your child says they seriously want to change their name, here’s how to tell if the decision is right for your family, or if you should find another solution.
Should I Let My Child Change Their Name?
It 100% depends on the circumstances. “The first thing parents can do is try to understand why a child feels the need for a name change,” says Michele Kerulis, EdD, LCPC, CMPC, associate professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
There are a number of reasons why your child might dislike their name. Teasing is indeed one; the name could be also hard to pronounce or spell to the point where it's a daily hassle. Your child may also associate their name with painful memories or connections — if it's the same name or reminds them of a parent that chooses not to be in your lives, for instance, or is a trigger that reminds your child of an abusive situation. They may also be questioning their gender identity.
Ask your child why they think a name change would be the solution to the problem they happen to be dealing with. “Validate their feelings,” says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, CA, and the author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Say that you understand that hearing their name doesn’t feel good to them.” Then, ask your child some key questions to find out more. Dr. Krulis recommends trying these:
How long have you been thinking about changing your name?
Do you know other kids who have changed their names?
If you picked a new name, what would it be?
You also want to explain that changing a name isn’t an easy thing to do. At the least, it will involve re-introducing themself to everyone at school, and they’ll probably be asked why they changed their name each time. (Baby-naming site Nameberry reports other people do quickly adjust to a name change, however, and it’s estimated that around 50,000 people change theirs per year.) If your child is old enough to be seriously considering a legal name change, you need to let your child know that the process would also involve your child going to court and explaining why they want to change their name to a judge.
After listening to your child’s perspective, you may agree that it’s a good idea. Gary Oliver’s son had ongoing issues with a name that was hard to pronounce. “I was supportive of my son's decision, and helped him to legally change his name,” he says. “I wanted him to be happy and comfortable with who he was, and I thought changing his name would help with that. He’s been more confident in himself since making the change.”
What If I Really Don’t Want My Child To Change Their Name?
If you think your child’s reason for wanting to change their name is not feasible, you certainly have the right to say no. “Tell them that once they are of legal age, if they still feel the same way, they will be able to change their name,” says Dr. Walfish. In the meantime, you could encourage your child to test out a name change slowly.
“My daughter picked a nickname for herself that people who knew her well could call her, instead of using her given name,” says Sarah. “This allowed her to feel more comfortable without making a permanent change that she might regret later.” Similarly, kids could also try going by a middle or last name instead of their first name.
It’s also important to address any underlying issues you’ve learned about why your child wants to change their name. For example, Dr. Walfish points out that a child who strongly states they “hate” their name could be struggling with self esteem issues or gender dysphoria. “Allowing your child to change their name with little discussion is not the answer to penetrating their developing sense of self and identity,” she says. Keep in mind, though, that if your child wants to change their name because of some underlying issue, a name-change isn’t going to fix that underlying cause; a child who wants to change their name because of low self-esteem, for example, might still struggle with their self-worth even after the change. Your child could benefit from speaking to a therapist. They may then decide that changing their name is not what they want to do after all — or they could be even surer of their decision.
How Do I Help My Trans Child Change Their Name?
In this case, experts say it’s best to accept your child’s decision. A study published by the National Institutes of Health found that young trans people who use a chosen name feel their gender identity is affirmed and have a lower risk of depression and suicide. Another study found that addressing trans people by their chosen name is important for helping them repair any damage they may have endured to their self-esteem, which is vital to their identity. So go ahead and celebrate their choice to choose a new name or modify their given name. “Making clear statements like ‘I am here to support you and we can talk about anything,’ can help children feel welcome with their new identities,” Dr. Keurulis says. “When parents use their child’s chosen name, they are showing respect, love and encouragement.”
Jessica Noonan does just that. “My child changed his name about a year ago when he came out as non-binary,” she explains. “He struggled to tell me, even though I consider myself an LGBTQ+ ally. It's hard to come out, under any circumstances, knowing that you will not be universally accepted.”
Noonan’s child was first named after her late mother, and he was worried she’d be sad or disappointed over losing the connection to her mother when he changed his name. “I told him, I love him, and I appreciate his sentiment, but ultimately I want him to live an authentic life,” she says. “I assured him my mother would support his name change as much as I do.”
The experience that Noonan and her child have gone through regarding his name change has been incredibly positive. “I can see the difference in his demeanor when someone addresses him by his chosen name — he becomes almost euphoric,” she says. “Our relationship has strengthened throughout this. There’s a lot of power and love in unconditional acceptance.”
The Bottom Line: Feel Proud of Your Child
Your child’s desire to change their name, for whatever reason, shows at least one important thing: they’re self-aware. Your child has shown they are willing to speak up about what they want and who they feel they are, which is a wonderful strength that will help them tremendously in life. Praise your child for this, whether you agree with their wish for a name change or not. “Ensuring your child feels heard and respected is important,” Joseph says. Creating an open space where your child is free to tell you what they really want, and who they feel they really are is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give.
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