Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's child Shiloh made headlines recently by appearing in a suit and tie at the "Unbroken" premiere. And when Jolie said Shiloh prefers to be called John, transgender and gender-nonconforming children suddenly had a very famous face to relate to.
In the United States alone, almost 700,000 citizens identify as transgender. Society has many schools of thought on how best to approach this community. As a child and adolescent family therapist, I provide guidance for parents of children who view themselves as being of their non-biological gender.
Transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals are nine times more likely to attempt suicide than the national average. Isolation and lack of acceptance are huge risk factors in this alarming statistic. However, proper family support can mitigate these numbers and save children's lives.
Here are tips I give parents who are raising transgendered children:
1. Love your child, but be honest
Regardless of lifestyle, your child should know that your love is a constant; this doesn't mean you have to lie about your feelings. Having a child modify their appearance, mannerisms and name is an adjustment for everyone. It's ok for your child to see that you aren't completely comfortable right off the bat, as long as they know it's something you're working on. Children will often sense if you aren't being honest. In order to build trust, be as truthful as possible without attacking or criticizing your child. The most important thing is to emphasize love.
2. Trust your child to know themselves
Studies have shown that gender identity starts to develop as early as the first year of life and is solidified by age four. When your child is telling you that they don't identify with their assigned gender, you may want to consider that it's not a phase. Your child knows themselves better than you realize. As your children begin to understand the world around them, they also need to be able to explore their own identity.
3. Expect community backlash
Not everyone can love your child like you do. Community and family members may not want to take the same steps towards acceptance. Remember that this public outcry is even harder for your non-conforming child. Public opinion should be an open topic of conversation and something that you face together. It's important to have a broad ongoing discussion about tolerance. Emphasize that there are many people who feel discriminated against for their differences outside of the LGBTQ community as well—like those who are overweight or are living with a handicap. By taking the focus off your child's struggle, you're helping to normalize the situation.
4. Seek support and education
Many families are working through the same situation. As a result, countless websites and forums are dedicated to education and support. Parents and Friends of Lesbian's and Gay's (PFLAG), for example, is a nationwide organization that caters to transgendered and gender non-conforming people as well as their friends and family.
Darby Fox, child and adolescent family therapist, has more than 20 years of experience providing individual and group therapy in both non-profit and private settings. Darby earned her master's degree from Columbia University, where she graduated summa cum laude after receiving a B.A. from Middlebury College. Since Columbia, she's pursued extensive post master's specialized training from Columbia University, Yale Child Study Center, NYU Silver School of Social Work, Mel Levine's All Kinds Of Minds Institute, Harvard Medical School and The Ackerman Institute for the Family. She currently divides her time between pro-bono work for Horizon's, a non-profit agency working with at-risk kids, and private practice.