How to talk to kids when someone in their life comes out as transgender, and why experts say a 'straightforward' approach is best

Experts share how to talk to kids when someone they know comes out as transgender. (Image: Getty Images and Liliana Penagos, illustrator)
Experts share how to talk to kids when someone they know comes out as transgender. (Image: Getty Images and Liliana Penagos, illustrator)

With about 5% of young adults in the United States identifying as transgender or non-binary — meaning that their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth — it’s important to talk to your own kids about what it means and how to understand the changes such a peer may be going through, from new names and pronouns to altered appearances.

The best approach, according to Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Human Rights Campaign, is to keep it simple.

“As adults,” Cooper, a Black transgender woman, says, “we attempt to make things complicated.”

Traci Williams, a queer-identified child, adolescent and family psychologist, adds that explaining to a kid that someone they know is trans is “not just a one-time conversation.” Typically, she explains, when children get new information “they tend to say 'OK' and move on,” but they will think about what you tell them and may have questions later. For that reason, it’s important to follow up.

Be honest and sincere

Where to begin? “Tell folks what happened,” says Cooper, adding that parents should always tell their children the truth. She says that a good explanation will sound something like, “We all thought Ava was a boy, but we were wrong and she’s a girl."

Chloe Harris, a transgender woman, parent and advocate who works with trans youth through Philadelphia's Dept. of Parks and Recreations, suggests that parents be "straightforward and matter-of-fact" when having discussions with kids. "If you're confident about what you say, the kids will be confident in what they know," Harris says.

Use age-appropriate language — and correct pronouns

Teens may understand what “gender identity” means, but younger kids won’t. Harris suggests telling children that "[insert name] is more of a Wonder Woman than a Superman" or "[insert name] is more of a Superman than a Wonder Woman" for trans boys, explaining to Yahoo Life that "kids get that because it's material they understand.”

As an alternative, Williams recommends telling children, “When a baby is born, if it has a penis, they say, ‘It’s a boy!’ … [but] some people who have a penis don’t feel like a boy. They feel like a girl.” She notes that children as young as 2 understand what “boy” and “girl” mean, so even toddlers can understand this concept.

Williams thinks most children only need “the big picture” to understand that someone they know is transgender. “Focus on names and pronouns,” she says.

Harris agrees, suggesting, “Constantly use the pronouns,” and recommending that parents use the person’s requested pronouns every time they talk about or visit them. For example, instead of saying, “We are going to Laura’s house,” say, “We are going to see Miss Laura. She is waiting for us. We will be at her house for about an hour when we see her today. She will have her cat.”

Both Williams and Harris say that it’s natural to make mistakes when first getting used to using new pronouns and names. If a child does that, let them know it's okay but that “they should immediately apologize, correct themselves and move on,” Harris says.

Finally, t’s important to not tell children that someone is “turning into” a boy or girl. Cooper emphasizes that trans people were always the gender they say they are, even if their sex and gender didn’t match when they were born.

Experts recommend having straightforward discussions with kids — and following up later if you don't have immediate answers to all their questions. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Experts recommend having straightforward discussions with kids — and following up later if you don't have immediate answers to all their questions. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Separate gender from sexuality

Harris thinks there is a lot of confusion surrounding gender and sexuality. She sometimes encounters people who think being trans is “the most gay,” which is not accurate. If children ask about this difference, Harris suggests explaining it this way: “Gender identity is who you are. Sexuality is who you love.”

Be prepared for questions

Many children will accept a simple and straightforward explanation about why Uncle Ken is now Aunt Kandice, but some will have follow-up questions. And if there are questions a parent doesn’t feel comfortable answering, they should let their child know that they will discuss the topic later; parents can follow up when they are ready. If a parent doesn’t know the answer to a question, they can let their child know they will investigate and get back to them with an answer, but they should never guess, make something up or lie.

Harris says that when she first explained that she was “more of a Wonder Woman” to her son, he asked if he would turn into a girl. Harris told her son that her transition was about her, and he accepted that answer. Williams recommends asking children who have this concern if they feel like a girl or boy. Once they answer, parents can talk to their children about their own gender identity.

Part of explaining to a child that a person is transgender might involve teaching children to respect boundaries. Children may ask about if and how someone’s body will change when they transition. And while some transgender people transition by changing the way they dress and changing their names and pronouns, and others undergo surgery or take medication, this is highly personal information. And since there is no right or wrong way to transition, it shouldn’t matter, explains Harris. If children ask about these issues, Williams says simply to tell children “that part is private.” Harris adds, “If you wouldn’t ask a non-trans person something about their private parts” or medical history, you shouldn’t ask a trans person those questions, either.

Consider what’s appropriate

Cooper emphasizes that if you know a trans person well, it may be appropriate to ask them questions or talk to them with your child. That said, “the onus is on the parents," she notes. While some trans people are openly out and willing to talk about their transition, “some people do not want to talk about it all,” says Harris. Even transgender women like Harris, who are usually open and willing to talk about their experience, don’t want to be stopped at the supermarket if someone has questions about what it’s like to be transgender. Williams likes to use children’s books to explain new concepts to children. She recommends finding books by and about transgender youth, such as I am Jazz, and Red, A Crayon’s Story, to open the conversation. Parents can then explain that “so-and-so is like the person in the story,” she says.

Modeling respect

Parents can lay the groundwork for these conversations early on by raising kids to be open-minded and in support of inclusivity.

“It's better to explain these things before kids are teenagers," says Harris. "Tell them what transgender means before they have a chance to hear intolerant opinions. There are many amazing and vibrant transgender public figures. If they're out and proud, they make wonderful examples.”

But what if a child is resistant to accepting someone's transition? Harris's advice is to tell them that “when someone tells you who they are, believe them.” Williams suggests establishing ground rules for the family, which may include telling a child, "In this family, we respect people,” and that they use everyone’s correct pronouns. She also recommends asking a child how it would make them feel if someone did not use their proper name and pronouns.

Harris and Cooper both recommend getting to know trans people. “Once you begin to know trans people, you can’t say they aren’t real,” says Cooper. Harris says that she found acceptance among even very conservative communities once people got to know her as a great soccer coach.

Williams emphasizes that acceptance is vital. “Suicide risk for trans youth decreases even if they have one person who is supportive,” she says.

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