When Searah Deysach’s 3-year-old started asking for a dress, Deysach didn’t take it seriously. Her child was young and it didn’t seem like an urgent need, so she dismissed the request until a family friend gave them a dress.

“Once my child had their first dress that’s all they wanted to wear,” Deysach says. “Every day we asked them, ‘Pants, shirt or dress? Pants, shirt or dress?’ They became a boy wearing a dress.”

Deysach, 47, is a mother in Chicago whose child was assigned male at birth and now identifies as non-binary. Deysach self-identifies as queer and uses the pronouns she/her. Her partner also identifies as queer and is a professor of sociology, studying gender and sexuality. They have trans friends and an open concept of gender, but they still worried about being judged as parents of a non-binary child.

“We were both pretty hesitant, especially because of the extra scrutiny put on queer parents. We didn’t want it to seem like we were contributing to any agenda we had for our child,” she says.

While Deysach and her partner feel they’ve been supported in parenting a non-binary child, that isn’t the case for everyone. That lack of support can have serious effects on a child’s well-being, particularly if the shortfall is coming from school.

For students ages 13 to 21 who identify as LGBTQ, school can be a hostile environment. According to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 87 percent of LGBTQ students reported harassment or assault based on sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, religion, actual or perceived race and ethnicity, and actual or perceived disability, in a 2017 survey. Seventy percent reported verbal harassment and threats at school based on their sexual orientation, and 59 percent based on their gender expression. Almost all — 98.5 percent — of LGBTQ students reported hearing the word “gay” used negatively (“that’s so gay”), and many said that it made them feel distressed at school.

a.t. Furuya, a youth program senior manager with GLSEN who uses the pronouns they/them, is concerned about immediate conditions and long-term outcomes for these students.

“LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk for homelessness and for dropout rates, and this number increases if they are youth of color or black, so carrying those multiple identities that are targeted by society has a serious impact,” Furuya says.

This is why it’s so important for parents to advocate for their child, at school and elsewhere. It creates a collaborative safety net.

Deysach and her partner received support for their child in nursery school. A teacher asked them if their child could be called “she” because that’s what the child requested. This started a slow transition for the family.

“It wasn’t super coherent, but it was clear that this was making them happy,” Deysach says.

In elementary school, Deysach’s child was met with a team of receptive teachers. Their pronouns were acknowledged and they were able to use the girls’ bathroom. The process had been relatively easy. Then in third grade, Deysach’s child stopped wearing dresses. They also announced they were no longer a girl and wanted to start using they/them/their pronouns. The child asked Deysach and her partner to contact the teachers, and the transition in the classroom was mapped out.

Deysach’s child, now 10, is set in their non-binary identity. “They will tell you they don’t have a gender, and that’s how they define it,” Deysach says. She acknowledges that as they get older it may get harder for other kids to understand that they are not identifying as a boy or a girl, but she thinks her kid is strong and confident and feels supported in their journey.

“We’ll see. I’m not looking forward to middle school for them,” she said.

Deysach’s apprehension is not unfounded, according to therapists.

“It’s the fear and the dread when entering an environment every day where you are not accepted, not seen, you’re bullied, or you’re hit, or made fun of for who you are at your core,” says Nikki Young, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Modesto, Calif. Young, who uses the pronouns they/them, believes this atmosphere can lead to anxiety, depression and in extreme situations, suicide.

“They need support and in those situations we encourage the parents to explore with that child what it looks like,” Young says.

It can feel like strange or uncomfortable territory for parents, but here are some simple ways to offer support as your child explores their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Check in. If you think your child is questioning or exploring their identity, begin by asking casual, nonthreatening questions. This creates a sense of comfort and open dialogue with no judgment.

Young suggests these benign check-in questions: Are you still comfortable wearing the clothes you’re wearing? I noticed you’re wearing your hair differently, have you been thinking about cutting it or growing it out? Do you want to try different colors? Anyone catching your eye at school?

“Whatever fits in your normal family system, just don’t shut down in front of your child,” Young says. Being silent can send a clear message that you don’t accept them fully and they are expected to hide that part of themselves at home.

Let them lead. If your child has come out to you, try asking simple open-ended questions to find out what they need: How can I support you? And how are you feeling?

Or get more specific: What pronouns would you like to use? Should we tell family? Should we tell the school? Do you want me to correct people in public if someone misgenders you?

Furuya says keeping your child’s voice centered gives them the power to choose how they wish to interact in the world and be seen rather than letting other people choose for them.

“Allow the kid to decide when and how to come out,” Deysach says. “Do not out them to your friends, family or school community without the child having a say in that decision.”

Send safe signals. In cases where the child hasn’t said anything yet, or is perhaps too young to articulate coherently what they’re feeling, offer nonverbal support. Place books around the home with LGBTQ themes, listen to music by artists who identify as LGBTQ, or hang up rainbows or trans flags. These signs tells children they’re in an accepting place.

Young also suggests family movie nights with films with an LGBTQ component, or asking someone in your family or friend circle who is LGBTQ if they would consider talking with your child about themselves and their process.

Hold space for change. Your child may also change their mind. Parents should be prepared for the nonlinear journey, and support that.

“The process of discovering and accepting one’s own identity often is not a simple or straightforward one,” Young says. “There is often much exploration, and kids often have to ‘try on’ different identities in the process of self-discovery.”

Do the work. Since the onset of the pandemic, many youth and parents support groups are operating online. Joining LGBTQ aligned Facebook groups will allow you to connect with other parents going through the same thing and share information. Books and podcasts are great options, too.

Furuya says parents need to take initiative and research on their own first, rather than putting the labor on their child.

“I have to do anti-racist work. So I’m not just going to go to someone in my organization or in my community and say, ‘Hey I don’t want to say something racist, how can I do that?’ Instead I’m going to do my own homework, watch my own videos, listen to people as they’re speaking, and listen to speeches that have already been given,” Furuya says. The same is true for people who are LGBTQ. Don’t put the weight of your education on the person you’re trying to support.

Seek help. “For parents who just don’t understand it, we recommend that the parent seek therapy for themselves, because their process is going to directly influence the child’s well-being, success and health going forward,” Young says.

Young wants to make clear, however, that lack of parental support does not mean a child is doomed. If you’re struggling with navigating your child’s development and identity, it’s not the end of the world. Give yourself time and compassion as you sort through your feelings, while still supporting your child.

“While parents set the stage, they do not determine the ending,” Young says.

Sarah Hosseini has written for Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Bustle, Romper, Scary Mommy and more. You can read her work at SarahHosseini.com.

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