Your adult child just came out as non-binary. Now what?

Most resources about non-binary or genderqueer people coming out are aimed at teens and their parents. Resources for parents of non-binary adults are, unfortunately, sparse. I’ve pulled together the ones I’ve been able to find.

I’m using “non-binary” as an umbrella term for “identities outside of ‘male’ and ‘female.'” Your child may use a more specific term, like “genderqueer,” “genderfluid,” “bigender,” “agender,” or “xenogender.” We’ll get more into terminology later in this post, so don’t worry!

Step 1: When your child comes out, listen with an open mind.

For many non-binary or genderqueer people, telling our family members about our gender identity, even when we’re adults, is really scary. We fear we won’t be understood, or won’t be taken seriously. We worry that we won’t be able to express ourselves well. We are terrified our parents may reject our new names and pronouns.

It takes an incredible amount of courage to come out to those who raised us. Even if you don’t understand fully what your child is saying, even if you are hurt by your child saying they are something other than what you think they are, and even if you don’t believe their identity is real, resist the urge to push back in the heat of the moment, and try to take pride in them doing a very scary, courageous thing.

Unless your immediate response is “unbridled enthusiasm and support,” be careful how you initially respond to the news. A good response, if you have a lot of strong feelings in the moment, is: “I don’t fully understand what you’re going through, but I want to. It’s going to take me some time to figure all this out, but I’m going to try, because I can see it’s important to you. I love you, and I’m so glad you told me this.”

If needed, you can add: “Is it okay if I ask some questions?” or “I’d like to take time to think about this before we continue the conversation.”

Ask your child how they want you to refer to them, if they haven’t already volunteered that information:

  • What are their pronouns?
  • Are they okay being called son/daughter/brother/sister, or do they prefer the more gender-neutral terms “child” and “sibling”?
  • Do they have new name they’d like to be called?

Whatever they tell you, make an effort to use those pronouns, words, and names to refer to them. This is the #1 thing you can to do support them and show you love them, even as you may be struggling internally with your own feelings about the change. It can take time to be consistent with calling your child something new. When you accidentally call them by their old name/pronouns, apologize, correct yourself, then move on. Nobody is perfect about this right away. It helps to practice when they’re not around.

That said, don’t tell anyone else about your child’s revelation without checking with your child first. Your child may not feel safe having other relatives or your friends know yet.

Try not to be offended if you weren’t the first person your child told. When people come out, it’s very common to begin by telling people who we know will be supportive and already “get it.” Many of us need a foundation of support among our peers before we suck up the courage to tell our families.

Know that your child being non-binary, and any choices they make about their name, pronouns, or otherwise, is not about you. This is not some late-stage rebellion, a plot to hurt you, or attempt to reject their family or heritage, even though it may feel that way at first. This is about your adult child wanting to be known as the person they are, and when they tell you, it means they want to include you in their authentic life.

Above all, remember that you don’t need to understand your adult child’s identity in order to respect them. Understanding takes time, but you can demonstrate respect immediately by making an effort to use the name and pronouns your child asks you to use.

Related post: Itchy sweaters: An ally’s guide to understanding late-in-life pronoun and gender changes

Step 2: Do some research, and learn the language of gender

You probably have a lot of questions. That’s okay and totally normal! Ask your child the questions that are specific to them, but don’t expect them to be responsible for teaching you about gender identity as a concept. Doing your own research, with good resources, is a wonderful way to demonstrate that you want to understand.

Here are some good places to start your research:

For a quick rundown of the concept of non-binary gender identities and gender expression, check out this Greatist article: The Wonderful World of Gender: What It Means to Be Nonbinary.

Nonbinary will not have the same meaning for every person you meet who identifies this way. It’s important to avoid assumptions because there’s no one way to look, act, or be nonbinary. If someone tells you that they identify as nonbinary, ask if they are comfortable sharing what being nonbinary means to them.

Greatist

If you have questions about specific terminology, here is a glossary of terms used to describe gender, and a wiki about different gender labels.

A 2020 study Gender: Beyond the Binary by advertising agency BigEye revealed some interesting statistics:

Credit: BigEye

This video tells the stories of non-binary people in their 30s-70s:

The book How to Understand Your Gender by Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi is a very gentle introduction to the ideas of what gender means and how we internalize our feelings of gender in our society. It’s an excellent book not only for people questioning their gender, but also for people trying to understand and support those people.

This free online book from PFLAG has a lot of great information and FAQs about how to support family members and friends who are transgender or gender-expansive (another term for non-binary). It includes a section specifically for parents of adults, starting on page 47. Note that the resource often uses the word “transgender” as an umbrella term to include non-binary people. Some non-binary people also identify as transgender, and some don’t. Your child may or may not be okay with being referred to as “transgender.” Again, ask which terms they’d like you to use, and respect them.

Step 3: Find support for your own emotional process

If you are experiencing grief, depression, anger, fear, confusion, or frustration around your adult child coming out, it’s important to recognize two things: 1. Your feelings are valid, and 2. Your child is not your therapist. It’s important to do the hard work of processing those feelings elsewhere.

There is some excellent information in the aforementioned PFLAG resource on validating and working through emotions you may have about the news, and places to find support.

It may help to connect with other parents of non-binary children. Here’s one parent’s perspective and a brief FAQ about their experience.

You can find a local support group for parents of LGBTQ+ children through PFLAG. During the pandemic, many of these groups are meeting online, so even if there isn’t a chapter near you, you may still be able to join one.

You can also sign up for Ally Parents. They can pair you up with other parents of transgender and non-binary people, so you can talk with someone who has been through this before. “No matter where you are on your journey, Ally Parents can provide an empathic ear, share resources, offer camaraderie and mentorship, and community for parents and caregivers who may be experiencing shock, anxiety, isolation, confusion, or a host of other emotions.”

Psychology Today has an online therapist and psychiatrist finder. Look for someone with competency dealing with gender issues, which will be listed as “transgender” in their finder.

Step 4: Celebrate

If you’re looking for ways to support your child, as you get your head and your heart around this change, consider ways you can celebrate your child better understanding their own identity. Some ideas:

  • Ask if they’d be interested in creating and sending announcements to the extended family about the change, and offer to help if they’re interested in doing so. These should be celebratory in nature, much like a wedding or new baby announcement. (Depending on the size of your extended family, sending announcements may not be necessary for sharing the news around. But it can be a nice way to get everyone on the same page.) The ones I created looked like this:
  • If your child is taking on a new name, ask if and how they’d like to celebrate their “name day” (however they define that: some celebrate the day they started going by that name, some celebrate the day it was legally changed). Put the date on your calendar and send them a card for it every year.
  • If they are taking a new name, buy or make them a gift personalized with their new name. It can be something small, like a bookmark, or something more grand. Search etsy.com for “personalized gift” to find ideas. It helps to get a sense of your child’s taste, which may have changed as they’ve come into their identity as non-binary (and they may still be figuring it out, too!).

Step 5: Consider how to handle family gatherings and traditions

As you get more comfortable with your child’s identity, it’s a good idea to ask them how they’d like to handle family gatherings and traditions. Are they comfortable being “out” to the whole family, or not? If your family has traditions that are heavily gendered, they may be alienating for your child. It might be time to update those traditions, or create some new ones that are more inclusive. The article How to Be the Person Your Trans Family Hopes For This Holiday Season has some excellent advice and options to consider to make your child feel welcome, and applies to gatherings outside of the holidays as well.

If you have additional resources for parents of adult non-binary children, please post them in the comments!


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14 thoughts on “Your adult child just came out as non-binary. Now what?

  1. Thank you so much. My child came out as lesbian at 17 and today, at 29 as non binary. They announced it in a group chat with my two other kids and me.
    I burst into tears afterwards and couldn’t understand why. I support them fully yet feel a terrible sense of sadness. I’m taking time to process, and they will never see anything other than a supportive, loving Mum. I am immensely proud of the amazing person I birthed and raised.
    Your article helped me stop beating myself up. My reality has shifted and I’ll take the time I need to adjust.

    1. Brenda this is so similar to my experience with my non binary 26yo assigned female at birth came out as lesbian at 20 and now at 26 is non binary and 6 months post top surgery. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions and your feelings are valid and real and they don’t make you any less loving or supportive as a mum. I love my child fiercely and will always have their back.

  2. Thank you for this. I am the parent of a 25yo child who came out as queer in their last year of college and has just shared with us that they are non-binary and it has thrown me. I am now searching for more information and your video has given me the start and some hope that we will all be ok. I know this isn’t about me, it’s about my child, I also understand I have a lot of work to do to support them and better understand something that is confusing to me. I owe it to my child to be the best version of myself to support them and let them know that they are loved. I may make mistakes along the way but I will always try my best.

    1. I’m so glad you found this post, and have found helpful resources within. Best of luck to you and your child on your journey.

  3. thank you for writing this article! im currently getting ready to come out to my mom as queer and non-binary at 23 which is by far the scariest person I will have told so far and with the way im telling her im glad ill be able to include her a link to this!

  4. Thanks for your excellent information. My 24-yo (assigned male at birth) recently came out as gender fluid with a change in name and they/them pronouns. I am fully supportive, though of course processing some of the same emotions others have mentioned. I have a specific question I wonder if you could address. What’s a good way to refer to a non-binary adult child in conversation. For example, I just RSVP’d to an event that I was planning to bring them to, and I would previously have told the host (who doesn’t know them) that I would be bringing my son. Saying “kid” or “child” doesn’t fit the bill, since they are grown. And “adult child” seems a little pedantic. I’m a writer, so the word things matter to me : ) Any advice?

    1. This is definitely a puzzler! If you have more than one child, referring to them as “my oldest,” “my youngest,” etc. would be a good way around the whole “kid/child” thing. You could also refer to them by their name, assuming the host knows who they are already. If it comes to it, “my offspring” is a funny and gender-neutral way to refer to them!

      1. Thanks, yeah, it’s definitely a puzzler when the person doesn’t know them, and doesn’t know or care that you have more than one, and their age rank isn’t relevant. I’ve used “offspring” before in more casual conversation, like a social media post they’re referred to in, but it doesn’t seem to fit the bill for all contexts. I’ll have to think about it some more, but certainly would welcome other parents’ input if they’ve solved this.

  5. MG I have found using my child’s name the most helpful and when I use “they” pronoun I figure it’s the listener’s job to puzzle through it as it’s not my job to spell it out or take away the listener’s confusion or discomfort. I hope this helps

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