fbpx arrow-leftarrow-rightaudio closedivot-right emailfacebook firesidegoogle-podcastsinstagramituneslinklogo-fullmicrophoneread searchsnapchatsoundcloudspotifytwitterutg-door-solidutg-doorvideo youtube

Several years ago, our family faced a difficult crisis. During her junior year, our daughter began struggling with schoolwork, was plagued by friend drama, and started experiencing awful anxiety attacks. My husband and I tried to help her navigate all of this, but no matter what we did, the problems got worse. After a difficult discernment, we made the decision to allow her to switch schools for her senior year.

That December, our once-girly girl told us that she no longer felt comfortable in her body and that she felt she was meant to be a boy. She cut her hair, started wearing boy’s clothes, and changed her whole demeanor to be more stereotypically masculine. I suspected she did this as a way to cope with the extreme stress she was under. I know now that our daughter was experiencing a painful disintegration within her mind, body, and soul. While she was grasping for relief from her pain, my husband and I were deathly afraid of the socially charged territory she was entering.

It was early on in what has become an epidemic of transgender diagnoses. The solid Catholic resources that exist now were not readily available, so we sought advice from secular doctors, psychologists, and teachers. Many of them told us that if we didn’t affirm our daughter’s new identity, she would commit suicide. Despite this threat, I felt to my core that the transgender path was not one in which our child would flourish as a healthy, happy human. I also did not believe that God had made a mistake when He knitted her together in my womb (Psalm 139:13). But I desperately wanted to find a way to accompany her through this traumatic time and create a space in which she could heal and seek wholeness without undue influence.

Those early days were hard. We struggled to know what to say, what to do, and what not to do. We made A LOT of mistakes. It would be a long time before we understood how to create that healing space we longed for, but the Lord began our instruction by opening our hearts and minds to the complex truth of what it means to be human. I started seeking answers from solid Catholic and Christian resources. I studied St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, read dozens of books and articles about gender dysphoria, listened to countless podcasts, and took classes. We prayed and prayed for the Lord’s tender mercy to fill our hearts so that we could love our daughter (and each other) with steadfast patience. But it seemed like the more we fought for her, the faster she seemed to race away from the life we had dreamed of for her.

Having a child with mental and emotional instability is a humbling experience. At some point, we realized that we had built up idols in our hearts for our daughter to lead a certain kind of life with a certain kind of success. When stripped of all of that, we were left with one option: love her right where she was at. It wasn’t easy because the place she was “at” was steeped in lies, self-hatred, and self-sabotage. She didn’t trust us, and the pain had robbed her of her faith, so it was difficult to try and speak the truth about how God had “wonderfully made her” without triggering a debilitating anxiety attack.

There was a constant tension in our hearts between loving our daughter and honoring God. What we came to understand is that tension —that place where we struggle to honor God and love our neighbor (or child)—that’s the narrow way Jesus speaks of in Matthew 7:14. It would have been easy for us to follow cultural leanings on the one hand and affirm our daughter with, “You do you.” Or, on the other hand, to have shunned her for pursuing a sinful, “woke” lifestyle apart from God. But the cross Jesus was offering us as parents was somewhere painfully in the middle: loving and affirming when we could, and gently resisting and redirecting when we could.

It was there in the middle, amidst our struggles, failures, and worries, that we found Jesus. We learned to die to ourselves and love without conditions. We learned to trust God and His plan for our good. We learned the immense power of prayer and how to patiently wait on the Lord. We learned to honor the God-given dignity of our daughter and affirm her personhood, no matter what. And we’re still learning how to love and accompany her  with curious anticipation rather than idolatrous expectations.

So how can parents love and accompany their gender-confused children? Here are some humble suggestions from our experience:

  1. Honor their God-given dignity. Even though they are doing something you may not agree with, it is so important to treat your children with kindness and respect. Always remember that they are beloved children of the Father, even when they are far from Him (think prodigal son).
  2. Honor their God-given free will. This can be tricky because you still need to “parent,” but resist the temptation to be authoritative dictators. Have respectful conversations with them about boundaries and rules and give them choices when you can. For example, we did not call our daughter by her chosen “boy’s” name, but we did let her choose her clothing without shaming her for her choices. This allowed her a measure of self-autonomy, something that her dignity and free will demanded. This helped to preserve our relationship with her and kept the lines of communication open.
  3. Pray for them. I humbly suggest praying a Rosary for your family every day. Also, spend time in the quiet, listening for the loving voice of the Holy Spirit. Receive God’s love for you, then ask Him to show you how to love your children through this.
  4. Listen to them. Patiently seek to understand their troubled hearts. Try to lay aside any predisposed judgments you may have (whether political or religious) and give your children a safe space to speak the truth about their lived experience. Be curious about how they feel and offer compassion and support. Hint: You don’t have to agree with them to do this (think narrow way).
  5. Spend time with them. They may resist at first but seek “side-by-side” time doing the things that bring them effortless joy. (This is especially important for fathers to do with both their sons and daughters.) Quality time gives concrete meaning to the words, “You matter to me.” Take a genuine interest in what lights up their hearts and make time to experience it with them.
  6. Discuss stereotypes and how they fall short. Find examples of men and women who have lived healthy lives in their God-given bodies while breaking cultural stereotypes. Let them know that no two people are exactly alike—masculinity and femininity look a little different in everyone. They can be themselves in the bodies God gave them, even if they don’t quite fit cultural norms. By doing this, you will be affirming their unique personhood rather than their dysphoria.
  7. As parents, rely on the unique gifts God has given you as a mother and father. God has given each child a mother and a father for a reason. Children flourish when their parents “parent” together. Work to honor the feminine and masculine genius God has given each of you and discern together the best course of action for each scenario, even if you are separated or divorced. Don’t run from this cross; carry it with courage together.
  8. Remember, they are watching and listening. Kids instinctively know when their parents are ashamed of them or reject them—this can leave a deep and lasting scar. When you’re interacting with them or talking about them to others, lead with love. Try not to get hung up on what others think and don’t compare them to other kids (especially siblings). Let your children “see” a unique and unrepeatable love in your heart for them and reassure them that God loves them, just as they are.
  9. Be attentive to your fruit. If you are doing things right, you’ll notice the fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) in your heart despite the storm that’s raging around you. If you notice other fruit (hatred, depression, anxiety, impatience, meanness, selfishness, hopelessness, roughness, and rashness), know that someone other than the Holy Spirit is at work. Seek the help of a trusted spiritual guide, priest, or Catholic therapist to help you navigate your own internal response to what’s going on with your children.
  10. Hire a trustworthy therapist for your children. Your family will need help on this long journey toward healing. Choosing a therapist can be daunting, but you can learn a lot by reading bios online. Look for someone with a unitive Christian vision of the human person (mind, body, and soul as one) who can meet your children where they’re at, honor their dignity and free will, and patiently accompany them toward integration and wholeness. You’ll also want someone your children can trust and open up to—it may take time to find the right fit. Be patient. (Note: If you need help finding a mental health professional willing to work with your child with gender confusion, contact the Archdiocese of Detroit Family Ministry Office for support.)

This list is not exhaustive—every child and every situation are different. Our daughter did not seek hormones or surgery, so we don’t have first-hand experience with that. But if you need encouragement to fight that battle for your child, I suggest reading Archbishop Vigneron’s recent pastoral letter on the challenges of gender identity. Ultimately, be confident that the Holy Spirit will guide your steps in loving and accompanying your son or daughter. By gifting your family with this child, God has uniquely qualified you to do so!

As for our story, our daughter is now 23 and free from the body dysphoria that once gripped her. Though she still suffers from anxiety, she loves being a woman and is working with great therapists to heal from past wounds and integrate her mind, body, and soul. Our relationship with her is still growing and changing—as any parent of a young adult who still lives at home can attest, it’s a daily challenge! But we’re able to laugh together, exchange regular professions of “I love you,” and we continue to strive for respect on matters where we disagree. While she has not fully come back to the Faith, I have no doubt that one day she will. Until that day, we patiently pray, witness with our lives, and invite, invite, invite. #stmonica

Life is a messy, blessed journey full of astounding joys and deep sorrows. But in His mercy, God wills that we not waste one bit of our life experiences—he’ll use them all in glorious ways if we let Him. For, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).