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Your Transgender Child is Not in a Phase

Photograph by Rex / Rex USA

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are being praised for their open-mindedness in encouraging their 8-year-old, John (born "Shiloh"), to explore gender. Jolie and Pitt have mentioned John's preference for boy clothing, a short hairstyle and a name change in the past. But rumors resurfaced when John attended the "Unbroken" premiere in a suit.

While it's perfectly normal for children to explore gender, gender nonconformity can stir up a lot of emotions in families. It can also be confusing. How does a parent know if a child is transgender or if a child is trying on gender roles? When can parents be certain that a child identifies as a different gender?

The glossy magazines have a way of making things look easy (coolest parents ever!). But the truth is that there are no easy answers. A transgender child is a child whose gender identity differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with. While sex and gender are often viewed as the same, they are actually separate. A child might be born a girl but truly identify as a boy.

RELATED: Raising a Transgender Child

What we know for certain is that transgender kids need support. Gender non-conforming children who do not receive adequate support from family are at risk for mental health issues (depression and anxiety), suicidal ideation and attempts, and drug use.

Cheryl Eskin, clinical supervisor at TEEN LINE, a confidential hotline for teens staffed by trained teens in Los Angeles, agrees. "Similar themes come up in nearly all of our transgender texts/calls/emails," says Eskin, an MFT. "A fear of rejection by parents and depression, which manifests as suicidal ideation, self-injury or isolation."

Most importantly, parents need to get to know their child. They should be careful not to make assumptions about how a child feels each day.

Family, peers, teachers and other professionals can play important roles in supporting transgender kids. Providing a safe and supportive environment is essential, and that begins at home.

Here are four important ways to support transgender kids:

1. Create a safe space.

Transgender children need a safe space for self-expression so that they may engage in honest communication and be true to their own identities. Transgender children are likely to face a hostile world in the form of bullying and judgment from others. They need a safety zone to express their emotions in an honest and open manner.

2. Provide unconditional love.

"Parenting doesn't come with strings or conditions," explains Eskin. "The most important gift you can give your transgender child is unconditional love and acceptance." Unconditional love is one of those parenting basics that is often tossed around as a solution to almost any parenting dilemma. In this case, it is vital.

According the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, more than 50 percent of transgender youth will have at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday. Transgender children need to feel supported and understood, especially within their own families.

"As hard as it can be for a parent to understand or accept that their son identifies as female, it is better to have a living child who is different from your expectations than a loss of a child by suicide," Eskin said.

The suicide of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, born Josh, drives home the point that a family's support can mean the difference between life and death. Alcorn's parents told Leelah their love was unconditional, and yet they couldn't support the decision to live as a girl for religious reasons. Leelah stepped in front of an fast moving semi truck just after the New Year. A suicide notes said that "this life I would've lived isn't worth living."

3. Educate yourself.

There are many misconceptions about the meaning of transgender. It's important for parents to learn about what it means. "Being transgender is not a choice, an act of rebellion or a way to anger or embarrass parents," warns Eskin. It isn't a "phase" either.

"If you are struggling with your child's identification, please seek help," Eskin says. "Your child needs you to be an advocate."

Parents should seek out information and read as much as they can. There is online support. They should also talk to others. Most importantly, parents need to get to know their child. They should be careful not to make assumptions about how a child feels each day. Instead, they need to ask questions, be there and learn everything so they can help their child.

RELATED: How Did You Come Out to Your Parents

4. Get help.

There are support groups for transgender kids and their families, both online and face-to-face. It's important for parents to know when their children need help and when help for the family might be beneficial.

As important as it is to familiarize oneself with the warning signs of suicide, it's also essential that parents remain connected to their transgender child. The best way to know how to help a child on any given day is to provide support, acceptance and an open ear every time that child walks through the door.

"If you are struggling with your child's identification, please seek help," Eskin says. "Your child needs you to be an advocate."

For more information on supporting your transgender child, please visit:

TransYouth Family Allies

PFLAG National

Gender Spectrum

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