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Storm clouds and rainbows – what it’s really like to parent a trans child

14 Dec 2022 6:49 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Originally Published on The Spinoff by Dr Julia De Bres

Many with no experience of raising trans children seem to hold a lot of views on it. That’s why Julia de Bres interviewed parents of trans kids about their actual experiences, and pulled those stories together into a powerful resource. 

Before I started interviewing parents of trans kids, I drew a picture.

In it is my child, bright, smiling and pink.  Like the Care Bears of my childhood, she emits a rainbow beam from her tummy to fight evil, and there is a glow around her as she brings her light into the world.  I am looking at her in wonder, but also at the dark cloud behind her.  As she gazes to the future in all her courage and sparkle, my eyes are on the impending storm.

As a parent of a trans child, I am very aware of how the experiences of parents like me are depicted in public discourse.  The dominant story portrays parents reacting to their child’s gender variance with shock, then slowly moving to acceptance via a painful series of phases akin to a grief process.

Parents of trans kids are asked to perform this story on the regular to people who turn to us with a curious gaze: “When did you first know your child was trans?”

I know the story is more complex and varied, because I’ve been living it for the past ten years, and because I’ve watched other parents do the same in an online support group.  Here I see parents having a wide range of experiences, positive and negative, with one thing in common – an unwavering commitment to support their kids.

If parents of trans kids only hear negative stories, they have little reason to hope for better.  I wanted to ask them how they really feel about parenting a trans child – how they navigate the hard parts and how they live their lives with joy.

I recruited parents of different cultural and social backgrounds – Māori, Pākehā, Pacific, Asian, fathers, mothers, non-binary parents, queer and straight – and I asked them to draw their experience of parenting a trans child.

Across the drawings, one visual metaphor kept recurring, which I recognised from my own: storm clouds and rainbows.

Rainbows were a recurring motif in the illustrations by parents, including this one by Julia de Bres.

The storm clouds represented the negative attitudes towards trans people that parents encounter in politics, media, and society.  For some, these attitudes are remote, in the form of laws protecting trans people from discrimination internationally being removed, misinformation on social media, and attempts to reduce access to gender-affirming care.  Others encounter them closer to home, in their interactions with family members, medical professionals, and schools.  Even within a supportive immediate environment, these attitudes remain a foreboding presence, one parent saying she was “always waiting for the ball to drop”.

There was darkness in these stories, but a different kind of darkness than others imagine.  The problem for these parents was not their child’s gender – it was everything around them.

The rainbows represented the positive aspects of parents’ experiences.  In affirming their child’s gender, parents noticed a leap in the happiness of their child, developed improved relationships with them, and experienced personal growth of their own.  One described her child as “an effervescent soul … a beacon of light drawing people towards him”, another as a charismatic “force of nature” who “takes people with her”.

Despite the challenges they face, the parents painted an uplifting picture of their experiences, vastly different from how this is depicted from the outside.  One commented: “this is going to be a lifelong journey for me and I’m never going to be at the end of the rainbow, but to have that spectrum of colour around me – I think it’s beautiful”.

A parent’s illustration from Julia de Bres’s project.

The thing about parenting a trans child is that the weather just keeps on coming.

I have kept in touch with the parents I interviewed.  Some kids who were doing well at the time of the interviews have since faced really hard times and some who were struggling are now flourishing.

Given the prevailing social environment, trans kids will face challenges.  Parents can help kids weather the storm, forming an umbrella of protection that fosters their capacity to get through difficult periods and back into the sun.

I’ve been through my own storms with my child, but there have been a lot of rainbows too.  Sometimes it is hard to separate them.  When she shines her brightest, the light seems more brilliant against the backdrop of the darkness we’ve seen.  I think that’s why one of the parents, who drew a rainbow without clouds, observed “you can’t have a rainbow without storms”.

It’s this complexity of experience, the ultimate hopefulness, and the fierce love of the parents I spoke to, that I wanted to share.

To do so, I created an illustrated resource with a colleague, called Storm Clouds and Rainbows: The Journey of Parenting a Transgender Child.

This resource was developed in partnership with the Rainbow Support Collective, a collaboration between rainbow-led organisations across Aotearoa, and supported by The Tindall Foundation, and is available to download here.

I hope it will help parents of trans kids feel seen and supported.  I also hope that it will provide insights to anyone who wants to better understand this experience – the storm clouds, the rainbows, the fog, the snow, the gentle breeze… and everything in-between.


The Professional Association for Transgender Health Aotearoa (PATHA) is an interdisciplinary professional organisation working to promote the health, wellbeing, and rights of transgender people. We are a group of professionals who have experience working for transgender health in clinical, academic, community, legal and other settings.


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