What is in a name? Being a parent of a gender exploring child || By Annabelle Denmark, MA, LPCC
A name is a gift from a parent to a child. It speaks of history, culture, and belonging, and it is the first tangible connection of a parent to their child. Some parents go through religious ceremonies to sacralize the name. The child belongs to the family, the name belongs to the family as well. Beside some exceptions, names are gendered and reinforce the social expectation of behaviors linked to genders assigned at birth. This tradition, set through generations, wasn’t questioned until recently.
As a parent, counselor, and member of our local community, I have observed a quiet cultural revolution in the way that our children explore their identity. Where 30 years ago, kids would not change their name/pronouns, or very few did, it seems that many children today are setting on a journey of identity exploration by changing their names and pronouns, exploring in ways that families are not prepared for. There is a critical difference between past cultural trends of nicknames where both names could coexist, and today’s rejection of one’s birth name as a “dead name.” It also seems that often with a name change, the child also adopts new pronouns to facilitate their gender exploration.
From the parent’s point of view
The parents’ experience of their child coming out does not have a lot of research or space for conversation. Most websites and blogs I have perused talk about the experience of the child and the necessity for parents to be supportive. The content of those sites is important, but so is the parents’ experience and what it means for them to go through this process with their children. I cannot speak for all parents and all experiences, I can only speak from the lens of my own experience, and what has been shared with me by clients.
When a child comes out to their parents, by sharing their need for a different name, using different pronouns, and changing their gender, parents go through stages of grief, pain, loss, and rejection that is normal and to be expected.
Dos and Don’ts
If you are a parent going through this process, here are some dos and don’ts of taking care of yourself during this transitional phase or your relationship with your child
- Don’t take it personally. Think of it as your child’s journey and not a rejection of you.
- Don’t take it out on your child. Your child is not trying to hurt you. You are going through a process just as they are. When you feel angry, walk away. When you feel hurt, seek comfort with a partner or a friend.
- Do tell them that you love them, and what you love about them, including parts of their new identity.
- Do tell them that you will make mistakes, But that you will alway work on doing better.
- Do ask your child for help on how to represent them to the outside world. When in doubt about how to address them in front of neighbors, friends, and family members, ask them, and then work out any fear.
- Process your feelings away from your child. Seek therapy and/or a support group. Talk to other parents who are going through it. What you are feeling is normal, and needs to be shared with others who can help. Your child cannot and should not do that for you.
A paradigm shift
How can we, as parents, move forward with our children as they become? How can we shed an idea or belief that we have about them and stay open hearted to their experience?
We need to change our framework from clinging on to norms to opening ourselves to freedom. This freedom has been earned by our ancestors and it is now our turn to give it to our children.
Our children can receive the freedom to:
Be and to become.
Stumble, explore, and change their minds.
Love themselves, unconditionally, as we love them
This gift of freedom comes at a cost – we have to overcome our own fear and shame of judgment, our old patterns of seeing the world as it was. We have to change. And when we do, we set ourselves free.
About the author: Annabelle Denmark, MA LPCC is a trauma focused, gender affirming somatic practitioner located in Lakewood, CO. Annabelle sees teens, adults and families. You will find her at www.renegadecounseling.comPlease email her at firstname.lastname@example.org