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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.
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
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
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.
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,