Is my child gender nonconforming?

Our children are who they are, regardless of what gender was assigned to them at birth after a quick glance at their genitals. Gender identity is internal, formed in the brain. Some children may already have an intuitive sense that their personal gender identity does not align with their assigned gender at a very young age. Your daughter may be drawn to boy’s clothing or traditional boy toys, and she may say she is really a boy; your son may be drawn to girl clothes and hair styles and want to play with girl toys, and at some point may say he is a girl. Your child may articulate this at age 4, 14, or even 24. As a parent, understanding your child and helping him or her figure out who they are may be the greatest parenting challenge you will ever experience. No one expects their child to be gender nonconforming or transgender…after all, there isn’t a chapter about this in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” The reality is that some children are. Transgender adults exist, and they all started out as children.

Is my child transgender?
I wish there was a quick and easy answer to this question, but the truth is that the answer might take quite a while to come to light and only after traveling down a complicated path. For most children, the answer is very simple. When taught that there are boys and girls, most kids immediately identify with one or the other. However, some children cannot so easily make this choice, and if asked, might say they are somewhere in between. When your 18 month old girl’s first words are “me boy” or your two year old son insists he is a girl, and these responses don’t waver over the next few years, you can be pretty sure that you have a transgender child. This does not mean that after a few days or even a couple of weeks of behavior that is inconsistent with their biological sex you should assume they are gender nonconforming. Kids DO go through phases. The markers doctors and psychologists look for are that the child is Insistent, Consistent, and Persistent in stating their gender does not match the gender assigned at birth.

What is the difference?
Gender specialists differentiate transgender from gender nonconforming by noting that a transgender child will assert very firmly over a long time that their gender identity does not match that which was assigned at birth. They will insist that you see them as the wrong gender (or any gender…some kids do not fit our traditional binary system), they are in the wrong body, or that God made a mistake. Gender nonconforming children are will assert what toys they do and don’t like, clothes they will and won’t wear, or activities they do or don’t prefer but they are often less adamant about who they are not. One way to think about the difference is that while all transgender children are gender nonconforming, not all gender nonconforming children are transgender.

How do they know?
Trans-children know who they are the same way we know who we are. Imagine waking up one morning in the body of the opposite sex. You would go to work, shopping or out to eat, and everyone around you would address you with different pronouns and treat you differently. Inside your mind, though, you would still be yourself. You would feel uncomfortable being called different names. You would feel uncomfortable going into the restroom assigned to people with your genitals because you know you don’t belong there. Do you think that just because your body now looks like the opposite sex, that you would ever adapt and be comfortable living as a man or a woman? This is the only way those of us who “match” (our brain development and our biologic body are congruent) can relate. At no point, regardless of how happy the child looks, are they truly comfortable in their body or with their expected social roles. Their only recourse is to dress as they identify, be called by different pronouns and possibly a new name, and hope that no one remembers what is really under their clothes.

Isn’t it easier to teach your child how to be a boy (or a girl)?
Think about it: Do you think you could teach your non-transgender child to behave like the opposite gender without a lot of crying, fighting and frustration (for both you and your kid)? Trying to teach a transgender child how to be opposite of how they feel is like trying to teach a non-trans child the same. All you are doing is teaching them how society expects them to behave and to bow to pressure put upon them. You end up sending mixed messages when you also try to teach your child right from wrong when dealing with peer pressure. Should they stand up for themselves or go along with others even if it makes them feel uncomfortable? Teaching your child to “be what others expect” is contrary to developing a good sense of conscience and self-esteem.

Trying to teach a transgender child to be okay with his or her body can also further their hatred of their body. Telling a child “You are a boy – you have a penis” (or the opposite for a female-to-male child) just reinforces their feelings of discomfort. This “hatred of their body” often leads to eating disorders, self-mutilation, and suicide.

Isn’t this just a phase?
For some children, expressing gender nonconformity may be a phase. The answer may become clear over time. The longer a child identifies as cross-gendered, the easier it becomes for a parent to answer this question themselves. If your child has expressed a cross-gendered identity since early childhood, it is unlikely they will change their mind. Most people have some sense of their gender identity between the ages of two and four years old. For most, this awareness remains stable over time. Identity becomes further refined at puberty onset and when puberty is more or less completed.

A young child who feels cross-gendered may change their mind. The most common time for this to occur is about 9-10 years old. There is insufficient research to know if these children later identify as gender nonconforming or transgender adults. So, it is unclear if this change indicates sublimation or if it was just childhood phase.

For children whose gender nonconforming identity has remained stable and unchanged beyond this age, parents can expect this will continue throughout life. Their sense of themselves will only deepen. For example, a 12-year-old child who has consistently asserted that he is a girl since the age of three will most likely remain cross-gendered throughout life.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, the self-esteem, mental well-being, and overall health of a gender nonconforming child relies heavily on receiving love, support and compassion from their parents.

Who caused this?
It is common for parents to blame themselves when a child falls outside of gender norms. (And let’s be honest, a lot of society will blame you as parents, too.) You might ask yourself, “Is it my fault somehow?” or “Where did I go wrong?” Mothers may feel they were too permissive. Fathers may be angry and refuse to accept their gender nonconforming child, especially if this child was born a boy.

Gender diversity is not an illness or a result of poor parenting. It is not the result of divorce or an indication of child abuse. Gender diversity is not caused by liberal, or permissive parenting, or by a parent who secretly wished their child were the ‘opposite’ sex. It is normal. You did not cause this or do anything wrong. Current research supports the theory that gender is “hard-wired” in the brain even before birth.

How do I change it?
A parent cannot cause a child to be gender nonconforming, nor can they change a child’s gender identity. It is a core sense of self. If a professional tells you that you can change your child to have a different gender identity, they are wrong. So called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy does not work. Psychiatrist Dr. L. Spitzer, who once offered a study on reparative therapy, has since denounced the practice and has apologized for endorsing it.

While your parenting choices will not change your child’s sense of who they are, however, they will have a profound impact on how they feel about themselves in relation to their gender identity. Research on the issue of family acceptance of LGBT youth conducted at San Francisco State University found that “compared with LGBT young people who were not rejected or were only a little rejected by their parents and caregivers because of their gay or transgender identity, highly rejected LGBT young people” were:

  • More than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide
  • Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression
  • More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs
  • More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV/AIDS and other STDs

What do I do about other people in my family?
It is easy to understand that conflict may occur within and between our other family members thanks to long held beliefs about gender and the immense pressures from society. As parents, we often do not reach understanding and acceptance overnight, and we experience considerable stress as a result. We may be uncomfortable, embarrassed, nervous or afraid. Our discomfort will impact the entire family.

Just as it took time for you to see the signs of gender non-conformity in your child and accept what it may mean, it will take time for your family as well. Keep them informed and involved from the beginning as much as possible. By supporting your child and allowing him/her to express in front of others, you can avoid “dropping a bombshell” on your family and allow them to become a wider circle of support for your child.

If you have already hidden these behaviors and feelings, bring your family up to speed with as much history as you can. Then, step back and give them time to adjust to the news. Remember, you didn’t “get it” at first either. Do not expect people to accept this within one or two conversations. Time and patience will play a huge part in the transition process. Many parents prefer to send a letter to family members telling their child’s story and asking for support. This allows each family member time to read and re-read the information and can help you avoid a face-to-face confrontation if their initial reaction is negative.

What about my other children?
Just as with other family members, siblings of a gender non-conforming or transgender child can have mixed reactions. Younger children often accept a sibling’s transition easier than older siblings because they do not understand the societal norms and expectations about gender. Conversely, sometimes an older sibling will be very accepting of a transition because they have always seen how their brother or sister has presented his or her gender differently. They may feel that a transition is just an outward affirmation of the sibling they have always known.

As a parent, we may unconsciously bond with our other children more than our gender nonconforming child if we are uncomfortable with anyone who acts outside of the typical gender lines. Alternately, we may overly focus on the gender nonconforming child, overlooking our other children as a result. If this happens, a sibling may act out in an effort to gain our attention, possibly in ways that are hurtful to their gender nonconforming sibling. For example, the sibling may “out” or disclose personal information about the gender nonconforming child at inappropriate times or in a disrespectful manner.

Try to spend equal amounts of time with all of your children. Rather than focus family conversations around gender issues, find something unique or of special interest to each child so that you have things to talk about and activities that will help you bond with each other. Explain that every person has a right to privacy and that talking about a sibling’s body parts is just as rude as talking about a stranger’s and that it is not acceptable. Encourage love and acceptance within the family so that all siblings are better prepared to deal with a lack of acceptance from outside.

Do you tell the parents of your child’s friends?
Whether or not you reveal that your child is transgender is a very personal decision. It often depends on the route you took during and after transition. Parents most commonly choose one of two options after allowing their child full identity expression: remain in the same location with the same friends and school-mates or move the family to a place where they are unknown and can start fresh, or live in “stealth.”

If you choose to be open about the transition, it is important to continue informing the families of new playmates, that your child is transgender. This will prevent them from learning about your child improperly. Most people — even when they are supportive — cannot explain the road you have walked with your child and your reason for allowing a full transition. They may say something like “that’s really a boy in a skirt” or “that is a girl under likes to wear boy clothes.” You may spend a lot of time discussing what should be a very private issue, but ultimately the purpose is to educate and protect your child.

On the other hand, if your family chooses to have your child transition privately, you must attempt to keep it that way. Private transition avoids the ridicule and taunting that both you and your child may face, but sadly the information can still get out, usually when it is least expected. For example, you may run into someone in public who knew you prior to your child’s transition or a family member may accidentally say the wrong name or use the wrong pronouns when you are around new friends. Always be prepared with something to say. It could be as simple as “We thought we had a son, but we were wrong. We are so lucky to know now so that our daughter can grow up happy and healthy, knowing she is loved for who she is.” If the new people in your life have questions, now is your time to educate them after setting the precedent that you want what’s best for your child and are supporting him or her out of love.

I’m scared. Won’t my child be bullied or worse?
Most kids get teased about something at some point growing up. Sadly, kids who don’t fit typical gender boxes are frequent targets of mistreatment, bullying or even violence. Our role as parents is to love and accept our children and help them learn how to deal with teasing. Because trans-people are at high risk of being the victim of hate crimes, it is important to instill a strong sense of values, including a good self-esteem and positive decision-making skills in your transgender child. Protect your child by doing as much as possible to educate those around you—in your family, your community, and your child’s school. Teach your child how to access the support needed when her or she feels like things are becoming unsafe.

What about dating? Who will love my child?
Dating is scary for parents regardless of their child’s self-identified and biologic gender. As parents, we need to instill in our children enough pride and self-esteem that they will be able to choose “nice people” to date. We also need to teach them when and where sexual activity is appropriate.

The most important part about allowing your child to date is teaching them to be comfortable with who they are and how they are different. If your child is comfortable with who they are, they will be able to build long-lasting, honest relationships; any relationship is only as strong as the people involved.

They will need to know both how and when to inform their friends or potential romantic partners and the importance of doing so. Dangerous situations arise when a romantic partner is “surprised” in a place where your child may not be safe, either because of a conversation or from physical contact. This is especially true for male-to-female teens or gay female-to-male teens because some teenage boys can be quick to anger or act violently if they feel they have been “tricked” into dating or kissing someone who isn’t physically what they expected.

How can I seek faith-related support?
Depending on the religion, denomination, or religious community, acceptance of gender nonconformity can vary tremendously. Research the overt messages about gender and LGB issues, as well as how LGBT people tend to be characterized, within a religion’s or church’s stated tenets. Even within non-accepting organizations, you may be able to identify people who you perceive as safe and accepting. Approach these members first about your situation and seek their counsel on how to approach to others. You must decide whether or not you want to stay with a church or community who is generally unaccepting even if you find several allies there. Personally, I do not want my children attending Sunday school in a non-affirming church where I would be unable to hear the messages they are given about gender. Even though we are a rather conservative family, we attend a more liberal church to ensure that my daughter will never hear that she is an abomination to God.

There are many places to find affirming and accepting churches. Several Christian denominations have come out as being LGBT supportive. Those include the United Church of Christ, Community of Christ, Ecumenical Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and Unity Church. Find a full list of affirming denomination here and here. To find a church near you, visit this website for a map of churches in your area.

How many kids like this are there?
No one knows how common gender nonconforming and transgender children are. Some gender specialists estimate that 1 in 500 children is significantly gender nonconforming or transgender. An older study based on statistics of postoperative transsexual men put the number at 1 in 20,000. The challenge of answering this question is immense. What is considered “gender nonconforming” to one researcher may not to another; many families choose not to be public about their child’s gender status, and doctors cannot do “population-based” research in the US on such issues. So at present, it is impossible to determine the actual number of transgender or gender diverse children in the US.