Talking About Gender

A young boy in a dress and women shoes wedges himself between two posts at a camp designed to support and encourage gender-nonconforming males.

Where should families begin when it comes to talking about gender identity? Most children by the time they learn to talk will declare a gender identity that aligns most usually with their biological marker, boy or girl. At around two years of age most children become aware of the differences between the two gendered sexes. By age four, most children have a stable sense of their own gender identity, that sense of self that establishes them as who they are, boy or girl. During these early developmental years children also learn their gender roles, those activities that are unique to boys and those activities which are unique to girls.

If you are confused about how your child sees him/herself you can simply ask the question, do you feel you are boy or a girl? Even this simple question is no sure way to tell whether the child will grow to be gender nonconforming adult, but it can help shed clues to their unique developmental sense of self and help provide clues as to how he or she feels about their gender identity.

The reasons for gender dysphoria are believed to be both biological and social. There is no evidence that links gender identity to parenting or early childhood trauma. It is important to extend as much love, support, and unconditional acceptance of your child for who they are. “Research suggests that gender is something we are born with; it can’t be changed by any interventions.” It is also important that children’s interest and abilities be encouraged and strengthened no matter what gender they seem to orientate themselves with. Being socially accepted in the home can be a tremendous support structure for a young person who may have to deal with public social unacceptance. The proper guidance by the parents to help a child achieve their own unique fullest potential is priceless, rather than mold them in to gender conforming stereotypical and traditional gender roles which can create anxieties and depression.

Typically, gender identity will become clear in early childhood, sexual orientation occurs much later. Talking to your child about sex or sexuality openly instead of shying away from the topic is another good idea. Research has shown that children who are talked to about sexuality are the most likely to postpone sexual activity. Parents should be honest about their own values, explaining their beliefs and reason for them. “Many gender-nonconforming children grow-up to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual: all are at risk for bullying and mental health problems. Gender and sexuality concerns spur a large share of teen suicides attempts.”

A note worthy quote I refer to often was postulated by Lucy Holmes in her book “Wrestling with Destiny,” which has been, to date, one of the best psychoanalytic pieces of literature I have come across. Although this quote primarily deals with women, I can’t help but ponder the social implications for men with gender dsyphoria issues:

“The women I treated and treat consistently demonstrate that they have an internalized triangle of mother, father and self within their psyches, and I have hypothesized that this unconscious triangulation is set up when girls, on a fantasy level, use the introjection of early parental objects in much the same way that boys use the penis: to gain mastery and control over an essentially uncontrollable object, the pre-Oedipal mother, and later, the Oedipal father.”

Approaching your gender-nonconforming child from a nonjudgmental perspective is best as well as offering understanding, respect, and support. This establishes the home environment as a “safe house,” one where ideas can be openly explored, topics freely discussed, and one in which your child can draw informed decisions using their own logic and intellect. Be on the look out for signs of anxiety, insecurity, depression, and low self-esteem. Stand up for your child when your child is mistreated. Do not minimize the social pressure or bullying your child may be facing. Do not be indifferent or encourage slurs or jokes based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Among the organizations that support parents and families with gender-nonconforming children are:

The following is a link to various gender terms and their definitions. It’s noteworthy to look over and to orientate yourself with these terms and the various possible spectrum of gender identity constellations that can unfold for your child.

Gender Identity; Terms Defined


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