“Transgender” is a word that today’s world is learning more about every day. There are regular headlines about actress Laverne Cox and musician Chaz Bono, and their work for transgender activism. The female-born child of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt has renamed themself John Jolie-Pitt and visibly taken on a masculine identity. Although it is not yet clear if John is transgender, the world has been discussing the possibility extensively. Transgenderism is no longer an issue that’s being ignored. As a result, parents now have resources available to understand what is happening when their own child comes out as transgender.

It’s the sort of revelation that can confuse and worry many parents. How can a child know what their gender identity is? Will this make my child less safe in life? What exactly does it mean to be transgender, anyway?

The first thing to realize is it’s alright to have questions. To answer the most basic ones, here’s a quick list of terms.

Transgender: describes a person whose gender identity does not align with their biological sex. For example, a man born with a female body.

Gender Identity: a person’s internal sense of gender, basically if a person feels they are a girl, a boy, neither, both, or somewhere in-between.

Cisgender: describes a person whose gender identity does align with their biological sex, the opposite of transgender.

Gender Expression: this is made up of the ways that a person “performs” their gender. It includes the clothes a person wears, mannerisms, hairstyles, and so forth. There is no inherent relationship between gender expression and gender identity. That’s why women can be masculine and men can be feminine without it changing their gender.

Sexual Orientation: describes what gender or genders a person feels sexually attracted to. There is also no inherent relationship between sexual orientation and gender identity. A transgender person can still be straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual.

Unfortunately, for many parents, learning that a child is or may be transgender comes with a sense of grief. They can feel that they’re losing the daughter or son they thought they had. Rachel Kahn, a therapist for Sidney Borum Jr Health Center at Fenway Health in Boston, is familiar with this feeling as expressed by her patients: “It can be scary to gain a new vision of a child’s future.” But Kahn emphasized that having a transgender child is not about losing a son or daughter, it’s about recognizing the daughter or son that the parents always had.

“Many parents feel complicated emotions [when their child comes out as trans],” Kahn said. “They want to process these feelings with their child, but what they don’t realize is how much that child or teen is going through already.”

Indeed, while a parent might struggle with seeing their child wearing new kinds of clothes or going by a new name and pronouns, it’s important to remember that the transgender child is likely struggling far more. It isn’t easy to come to terms with being trans; it means questioning something that everyone has assured you all your life is inherent to your identity. By the time the child or teen comes out as trans they have often spent months, even years, considering the issue. They know they’ll have to deal with issues such as wondering what public restrooms they’ll be allowed to use; whether their identity will be dismissed or mocked by the people they love; and, of course, there is the constant worry of becoming the victim of a transphobic hate crime. Assaults, rapes, and murders are all too often committed against members of the transgender population.

But one of the largest problems facing transgender youth is depression. “Transgender kids often develop depression and anxiety… It’s very hard to live with an identity others don’t accept. People need to have an empathetic eye,” explained New York-based therapist Darby Fox.

Unfortunately, rates for depression and suicide are very high for transgender people. According to a 2010 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 41% of transgender people will attempt or commit suicide in their lifetimes. One recent prominent case was the well-publicized death of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn of Lebanon, Ohio. Alcorn was a transgender girl who committed suicide this past December after what she described in her suicide note as months of isolation and discrimination by her parents. Alcorn’s parents reportedly objected to their daughter’s identity on religious grounds and only provided her with therapists who would try to convert her into the son they thought she should be.

Both Fox and Kahn voiced strong opinions against the idea of conversion therapy. “In my opinion, conversion therapy does not work,” Fox said. “It just makes things more complicated for kids. All it does is suit a parent’s agenda.”

According to Kahn: “Conversion therapy has been proven to be harmful and is emotionally abusive.”

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The most important thing any parent can do to support a transgender child, experts say, is to show constant, unconditional love. Transitioning is always a difficult process, but it is infinitely harder without the love and support of family. If you are a parent who is having trouble understanding and accepting what your child is going through, it is a good idea to look into online research materials, local support groups, and even private therapy sessions. There is no shame in having questions, but often one’s own child is not the best person to ask.

Kahn offered advice for some of the most basic elements of support. “It’s absolutely important to use your child’s preferred name and pronouns,” she said. “If you use the wrong ones, apologize and emphasize that you are trying to improve.”

Also remember that many transgender people want to transition their bodies from one form to another. This is a discussion that can come up at a young age, as physical transition tends to be easiest if started at or before puberty. Your child or teen may want to take hormone pills or shots, acquire a garment called a binder that ties down breasts, or look into changing their listed gender on official documents. These are all normal parts of transitioning and your child will need your support to get through it.

For many, “transgender” is a word that can be strange and intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Underneath all the terminology and scientific discussion, trans people are still normal human beings who need the same things as everyone else: love, acceptance, and a safe place to call home. If you have or think you have a child who is transgender, remember that while you may have a lot of new things to learn, you already have the tools to give your child all the love they need.



Related article: Boston-based LGBT legal advocacy organization GLAD has launched a campaign supporting the formation of Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) student groups at Massachusetts middle schools