Exploring Experiences of Loss and Ambiguous Loss in Parents of Female-to-Male Transgender Youth

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Marriage and Family Therapy


Deborah Coolhart


Ambiguous Loss, Loss, Mental Health, Transgender



The medical, academic and clinical fields still largely neglect the area of transgender research as well as applicable clinical models. There is even less research on experiences of family members, and specifically parents of transgender individuals. Creative and non-conforming expressions of gender identity are being brought to clinicians' attention as early as childhood and adolescence thus the importance of sensitivity and awareness cannot be understated; further, there is a vital need for family awareness, understanding, education and support. The current literature on the family members of transgender individuals provides three models of emotional processing (Ellis & Eriksen, 2002; Emerson & Rosenfeld, 1996; Lev, 2004). None of these models are empirically based; rather they have been based on clinical work and experience with transgender individuals and their families. All of these models include many different experiences of loss for family members. Thus, models describing the experiences of loss (Kübler-Ross, 1969) and ambiguous loss (Boss, 1999) are also helpful in understanding these experiences. This study explored parents' experiences of loss and ambiguous loss of their female-to-male transgender youth after the discovery or disclosure of the youth's gender identity. Participants completed in-depth semi-structured interviews and data was analyzed using an Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009) approach. Findings suggest some parents experience loss while others do not and many experience ambiguous loss. Parents developed a variety of methods to cope with loss, some leading to experiences of transformation. Clinical implications are discussed, suggesting strategies for therapists working with parents of transgender youth.


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