Family Boundary Ambiguity Among Transgender Youth

Jory M. Catalpa, Jenifer K McGuire

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Objective: To explore family boundary ambiguity in the parent–child relationships of transgender youth. Background: Transgender youth may perceive a lack of clarity about whether parents will accept their authentic gender expression, continue to support them physically and emotionally, and regard them as a member of the family. Uncertainty about being in or out of the family and whether family relationships endure is stressful and can lead to psychological distress, a sense of ambiguous loss, and frozen grief. Method: Ethnographic content analysis was conducted based on interviews with 90 transgender youth recruited from community centers in 10 regions across 3 countries. Results: Narratives revealed that transgender youth experienced family boundary ambiguity related to relational ambiguity, structural ambiguity, and identity ambiguity. Each experience of ambiguity obscured whether participants remained in the family and interpersonally connected to their parents. Conclusion: Transgender youth actively navigated complex and ambiguous parent–child relationships whereby participants attempted to reconcile their need for authentic gender expression combined with their need for family connectedness and acceptance. Implications: Family clinicians, educators, and policymakers are urged to consider family and transgender resilience through a lens of ambiguous loss and to promote a gender-affirmative life-span approach to clinical care for transgender individuals and their families.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)88-103
Number of pages16
JournalFamily relations
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was funded by an internal grant to the first author from the Lucile Garley Blank Fellowship in Ambiguous Loss. The second author received an internal grant from the Drug and Alcohol Research Program, Washington State University. We are thankful for the participants who contributed to this study, to the center and center coordinators who supported the study, and for editorial comments made by Dr. Pauline Boss on the original thesis.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 National Council on Family Relations


  • Adolescent development
  • LGBT issues & relationships
  • boundary ambiguity
  • gender development
  • parent–child relationships


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