One of the most important and difficult tasks that parents face is how to best support their children while also setting the kind of boundaries and structure that helps them grow up to become responsible and successful adults. Sure, children and teens love to test the boundaries that adults set for them. But it is important to make distinctions between instances where “kids are being kids” and when they’re asserting things about themselves that are critical to their identity and development; as is the case with gender identity and expression.
Gender identity and expression are essential to the way we see ourselves and engage in the world around us. This is certainly true of transgender and gender-expansive children and teens, for whom family support is absolutely critical. Studies have shown that family rejection can lead to youth engaging in behavior that puts their life and health at risk, triggers depression and other mental health problems and in worst case scenarios results in homelessness or suicide. Also, family support can act as a cushion against bullying and bias outside the home. In other words, for some transgender youth, family support can be the difference between life and death.
Children are not born knowing what it means to be a boy or a girl; they learn it from their parents, older children and others around them. This learning process begins early. As soon as the doctor announces based on observing the newborn’s external sex organs – “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl,” the world around a child begins to teach these lessons. Whether it’s the sorting of blue clothes and pink clothes, “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” or telling young girls they’re “pretty” and boys they’re “strong.” It continues into puberty and adulthood as social expectations of masculine and feminine expression and behavior often become more rigid. But gender does not simply exist in those binary terms; gender is more of a spectrum, with all individuals expressing and identifying with varying degrees of both masculinity and femininity. Transgender people identify along this spectrum, but also identify as a gender that is different than the one they were assigned at birth.
At some point, all children will engage in behavior associated with different genders – girls will play with trucks, boys will play with dolls, girls will hate wearing dresses and boys will insist on wearing them and gender nonconforming behavior does not necessarily mean that a child is transgender. That said, sometimes it does – with some children identifying as another gender than the one they were assigned by the time they are toddlers.
The general rule for determining whether a child is transgender (rather than gender nonconforming or gender variant) is if the child is consistent, insistent, and persistent about their transgender identity. In other words, if your 4-year-old son wants to wear a dress or says he wants to be a girl once or twice, he probably is not transgender; but if your child who was assigned male at birth repeatedly insists over the course of several months that she is a girl, then she is probably transgender.
Sure, most children and teens go through “phases” like only wearing all black, dying their hair, being obsessed with a certain band or asking to go by a nickname, but being transgender is not a phase, and trying to dismiss it as such can be harmful during a time when your child most needs support and validation. Trying to change your child’s gender identity either by denial, punishment, reparative therapy or any other tactic is not only ineffective; it is dangerous and can do permanent damage to your child’s mental health.
Whether or not a child is trangender children are all the same and want affection and love from their family especially their parents. Remember that being transgender is not a phase or fad that your child is going through it’s something they truly feel on the inside and its important to remember that. Be as supportive as you can be to your children regardless of what their age is and let them express themselves the way they feel suits them the best. As they explore their gender things will begin to come to light for them if they are transgender and if you have an open mind about it they are more likely to come to you and feel comfortable to express their feelings.