As parents, we are familiar with the sometimes passing curiosity of young children - boys who play with dolls, girls that will never wear a dress and would much rather get dirty with the boys than spend time with dolls. Many parents understand this is part of growing up. For some children, however, this isn’t a phase, it is the beginnings of gender nonconformity and, according to some experts, it can begin as early as two years old.
Gender nonconformity, also called gender variance, gender diverse or gender atypical, is when either behavior or gender expression (or both) doesn’t match "traditional" gender roles. Both boys and girls can experience gender nonconformity but it is normally more accepted in girls; they are simply seen as "tomboys." When a young boy prefers wearing dresses or tutus and wants to spend his day playing with dolls, it is somehow seen as wrong.
No one knows how many children, or adults, are gender diverse. Statistics for transgender, which is when a person is born into a gender they don’t identify with, are hard to come by and rarely agree. The Williams Institute indicates that 0.3 percent of adults are transgender but the site transgenderlaw.org estimates that between two and five percent of the population is transgender. Part of the problem is that most forms ask only if you are male or female and don’t request any information on whether you identify with the gender you were given at birth. Some people believe the figure is much higher but we, as a society, won’t know until we accept people who are transgender and begin asking, without judgement.
If you have a child who is gender diverse, you might wonder how to handle it. You might worry that you are doing something wrong or that, by accepting it, you are pushing your child into a life of being bullied or harassed. You might want to "change" your child, forcing him or her to accept more traditional roles. Or, you might want to allow your child to be himself or herself but be worried about the repercussions, the stares, the judgement of others. The following are ten things you should know if your child is gender non-conforming.
Your child needs your unconditional love and acceptance. Children who are gender diverse want the same thing as every child wants. They want to know that their parents love them. They want to know that they are free to be who they are. They want to feel safe and secure. Whether your son wants to wear sparkles or your daughter wants her hair cut in a boy’s style, make sure you tell your child, everyday, how much you love him or her.
Gender diversity can show up in many different ways. Your son might say, "I want to be a girl" or ask you to call him by a girl’s name. He might like to wear tutus or sparkles or princess dresses . Your daughter might balk at the cute dress you bought, never look at the dolls she got for her birthday or feel much more comfortable playing football.
Focus on your child’s individual strengths and talents rather than his or her ability to fit into society’s view of male and female. Everyone has talents and abilities that allow them to excel. Be supportive of these and encourage your child to pursue what interests him or her.
Remember that societal view change over time. Where it was once considered "unmasculine" to cry, to stay at home with children, to share their feelings, these are now often encouraged. Women were previously thought as weak and passive but assertiveness is now a trait for both men and women. As transgender becomes more accepted in society, the ideas we have today will continue to change.
Your child’s emotional well-being and feeling good about himself or herself is more important than teaching him to conform to society’s views. Provide a supportive and encouraging environment for your child, one where he is accepted and can therefore accept himself.
Therapy isn’t needed unless the gender diversity is causing conflict or difficulties, which is called gender identity dysphoria. Therapy to "change" your child or help him or her better conform to the gender given at birth have been shown not to work. Today’s gender identity therapies usually fit into two categories - one works to help the child better "fit" into their biological gender, the other works to help the child live with their "chosen" gender. However, many parents simply choose to be supportive, loving and accepting, allowing their child to express their gender in their unique way.
Separate your inability to accept the situation from your child’s. Your child’s gender expression is probably not a problem for him or her - until he or she sees that it is a problem for you. Gender diversity isn’t a psychological problem and doesn’t need to be fixed. However, if you are having a problem with acceptance, it might be helpful for you to talk with a therapist. If your child is older, middle school or higher, and is having emotional difficulties accepting their gender diversion, talking with a therapist to learn self-acceptance might be helpful.
Not all children with gender diversity are gay. While many children with gender diversity are gay, many are not. Don’t assume that you know your child’s sexual orientation because of their early behaviors and gender expressions. Allow your child the opportunity to grow and learn about their sexuality in a non-judgemental environment, making sure they know that you will love them no matter what their sexual orientation.
Talk about societal expectations and what your child might expect out in the world. Your discussions should be geared to your child’s age. A younger child isn’t going to understand being rejected because his shirt is sparkly but as your child enters middle school and high school, he might be made fun of when outside the house. Talk about what might happen and how he might handle the situation.Then, let him or her make decisions about how to express their gender.
Keep in mind that bullying is a problem with the bullier, not your child. Bullying is wrong and should be addressed with your child’s school. There is no excuse for bullying and if it does occur, you should continue to stand up for your child’s right to express his or her gender in a way that is comfortable.You should, however, talk to the school about the bullying.
Remember you are not alone. Don’t hide in your house, ashamed. Reach out to others. Despite the fact that we don’t know what percentage of children are gender diverse, we do know that there are online support groups for parents. Reach out and talk with other parents, it might help you better cope with difficult situations. By talking about your child, you might find others in your area going through the same thing. There are also books for children, such as "My Princess Boy" to help your child feel less alone.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.