Bright Idea: Five Ways to Help Parents and Their Transgender Teens and Young Adults

A transgender teen with their family.

As program coordinator for iTEAM (Treatment Empowerment for Adolescents on the Move), a drop-in center run by CODAC Behavioral Health Services in Tucson, AZ, Ian Ellasante often encounters transgender youth who’ve ended up homeless because their parents rejected their identities. 

“As a part of the intake we do, we talk about their coming out process,” says Ellasante. Rather than being directly kicked out of their homes, he says, young people face home environments so uncomfortable they feel they have no choice but to leave.

“There often are issues of acceptance--parents who won't accept it, who will downplay their children's gender presentation or who feel the children are deviating from their conceptions of what a family is or should be,” says Zuryanette Reyes, a case manager at the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

The trauma of parents’ rejection and homelessness can lead to depression, sexual risk taking, substance abuse, or partner violence.

Things don’t have to be that way, Ellasante and Reyes say. Here are five ways youth and family services professionals can support the families of transgender youth, help parents get past their initial fears and concerns, and ensure young people’s safety:

  1. Discuss harassment. Talk to parents about the higher incidence of harassment and assault, but clarify that being transgender in and of itself is not the risk factor. Emphasize that the risk is discrimination because of their identities, or even just their appearance. Focus first on the negative behavior of the bully or abuser. 
  2. Discuss and maintain safety. Help parents to see that young people will not feel safe if their gender identity is not validated. “What we hear from our youth is that they would rather be on the street, sleeping in an abandoned building or couch hopping” than in a home or shelter where they feel unsafe, says Ellisante. “As a parent, as a service provider, just try to provide a safe, accepting environment.”
  3. Provide culturally responsive sexual health education. Talk to parents and teens about pregnancy prevention and STIs and discuss safety and protection as a whole. Don’t talk about what men do and what women do, Ellasante says. Instead focus on body parts. If you’re using a curriculum, change the language to be more inclusive. If scenarios in the curriculum are gendered, try changing the language to be more gender neutral.
  4. Work to empower teens. Teach parents ways to empower, engage with and discipline their children. At the same time, make teens aware they have support networks beyond their biological families and that they do not need to stay in an abusive home.
  5. Respect preferred gender pronouns. Ask all youth, no matter how they appear, their preferred gender pronoun. Do your best to use the pronoun that a young person specifies. Check in every so often to see whether the preferred pronoun is still the same, or if it has changed. Ask young people what pronouns they would like you to use when talking to a parent or guardian. That may be different from their usually preferred pronoun. It’s possible they are letting the guardian adjust gradually to their new identity. 

If you would like to see an example of an inclusive intake form, contact iTEAM to ask for a copy of their sample supplemental questionnaire.

Recommended Reading

"Ask NCFY: Meeting the Needs of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Youth," January 2012.

Unsuitable Bodies: Trans People and Cisnormativity in Shelter Services,” Canadian Social Work Review, Vol 28, No 1, 2011.

Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Youth With Open Arms,” NCFY Reports, July 2010.

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