A Parent’s Post: Anti-Loss

Many parents of transgender children (youth and adults) express sadness about feeling like they’re going to lose their child in some way when their child transitions. I’ve heard several parents say this impending loss feels like a death, and they prepare to grieve accordingly. It’s never really that they are feeling that way; usually they are scared they are going to feel that way when their child transitions.

I tell them most parents end up not feeling that way, as their child will still be here, but they won’t know this until they go through it themselves. Really, the parent is not losing their child. The child (again, I’m talking about “adult children”, too) is going to be the same person they always were. The parent is only now beginning to understand what pronouns and gender identity go along with who their child really is. The main loss is that of pronouns and a mental image of who the parent thought they were.

Recently, a father made it clear he had not experienced loss as a result of his child’s transition. I wanted desperately to bottle up his words and give them to each parent I see who is struggling with a sense of impending loss in regards to their transgender child. So, I did the next best thing; I asked him to write a blog post about it! Without further ado, please read these words from a father who has gained so much.

“Anti-Loss – By Peter T.

Emma was our second child, born from the love her mother and I shared and wanted to manifest in the world.  In the days after we learned she was pregnant, my wife and I had no idea if she would give birth to a boy or a girl – and to both of us, it made no difference, whatsoever. Whether our baby, our child, our young adult was a boy or a girl was pretty much irrelevant, as long as they grew up happy, strong, knowing they were deeply loved and accepted for their unique and beautiful self.

Our baby was born in the body of a girl… but in this baby, nature decided to do an interesting thing. Somehow, the heart and mind and spirit of a son was inserted into the body of a girl.  We as parents, being such literal and visual creatures, took the visual presentation of our baby to be all we needed to know about gender.  The doctor said “It’s a girl!” and we believed.  We went about dressing our baby and our child as a girl… giving “her” girl activities… and investing in our expectations about what “she” would grow up to be.

As our child grew up and was able to begin to make choices in clothing, friends and activities, it was gradually apparent that our ideas about “being a girl” weren’t really fitting this small person.  Still, we took our child to ballet lessons and set up tea parties with classmates, bought cute dresses and imagined the life-ahead for “her” – and our child seemed to participate in these things happily… up to a point, but beneath the seemingly-accepting exterior of this small person, inner turmoil was brewing.

We, as parents of transgender teens, all have our stories of how our child made their truth known to us and how we initially – and then eventually – reacted to their needs.  I won’t lengthen this writing by sharing mine in detail, but I will acknowledge that I definitely had to go through my own reprogramming… adjusting in some fundamental ways, how I perceived my child.  The child I had known for 13 years as Emma now was to be called Andrew… “she” was to be “he” and a whole new world of concerns for his welfare appeared – in addition to the ones that come standard with every teen.

I have been so very fortunate to be included in my son Andrew’s counseling sessions.  All sorts of truths rise to the surface there that “real life” often doesn’t allow time or space for.  A few weeks ago, I said something to Andrew in counseling that I’d said several times before – but this time, he finally made it clear that what I’d said was hurting him.  What I’d said was that he was at something of a disadvantage in passing as male, because, as a girl, he was quite pretty – and that gave him an obstacle to overcome in looking masculine.  Andrew shared with me that when I said things like that, he felt as though I was saying I had lost something – that I had lost my “pretty daughter”… and clearly, it hurt him to feel that who he truly was inside – and now, outside was something “less” to me.

I was very sad to know that my observation about “what he used to be” caused him to feel I had lost something along the way.  The truth is so entirely opposite – for me it has been “anti-loss” – ONLY gain – as I have seen my child stand up and speak his truth and claim his real life – against all odds, despite peer pressure, despite fear of ridicule, in the face of the certainty that his road ahead would be so very hard.  I told him then… and I will remind him often… that he is so very much *more* than I ever could have hoped for in a child, in a son, in a young man who I am so entirely proud to have in my life.

What was it again?  What did I wish for… back in those days before his mother and I knew his eye color or his name?  What was it that we had hoped for, above all?  I had wished for a child who would be able to grow up happy and strong… who would face difficult challenges with integrity and intelligence… who would know himself deeply  – and from that knowledge, live a life filled with love and joy and passions-abounding.  In my lovely son, I have found examples of all those things that I, myself, can only hope to aspire to.  His process of becoming himself is such an incredible honor to participate in and I hope, as he grows into the amazing man I know he will be, that he always knows that his parents accept him and love him deeply and completely.

There is nothing here but gain.”

Thank you, Peter, for your beautiful words and sharing your perspective. Thank you also to Andrew for letting me share part of your story. ❤

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Viral Video: Ryland’s Story

A very important video has gone viral with over 4.5 million hits in one week. It’s the story of young Ryland, a transgender boy who was allowed to socially transition at the age of 5. To see the video, click here. As a gender therapist, and a gender therapist who also works with transgender children, I’m thrilled to see this video in mainstream media: Huffington Post, People.com, Upworthy.com. It’s bringing awareness to an extremely important issue: not just that transgender children can transition, but it drives home the point that transgender people are born transgender. The age that one is consciously aware of being transgender or transitions can vary widely, but an individual does not become transgender over the course of their lifetime.

I had the honor of speaking about this issue on Good Morning America. To see the clip, click here. I said a lot more than what was aired, but there’s only so much they could fit into a 4-minute news segment. I’d like to take this opportunity to address some of those things now. These points are in direct response to the questions I was asked by Good Morning America about the video. Regular readers of this blog are probably well-versed in the answers below, but in case this post is read by someone seeking more education or to understand young transgender children, I wanted to be thorough.

Many people were surprised to read that 41% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide, while the rate of the general population is 4.6%. That staggering statistic, I believe, applies to transgender individuals who transition later in life and meet with familial/societal resistance, rejection, or shame. “New analysis of responses to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) shows that transgender respondents who experienced rejection by family and friends, discrimination, victimization, or violence have a higher risk of attempting suicide.” I strongly believe that number will plummet in the coming years with increased awareness, education, and accepting, responsive families like Ryland’s. To read the full report from the Williams Institute, click here.

I was asked questions about what interventions are recommended for transgender children. For a transgender child as young as 5 or 6, the first step is social transition. This means changing pronouns, sometimes name, and some societal markers of gender such as haircut or dress. No medical interventions happen at this stage, contrary to some sensationalistic beliefs. The first medical interventions would be just before the onset of puberty, at which time hormone blockers would be introduced to prevent the body from going through the “wrong” puberty. As the teen ages, cross-sex hormones would be administered to initiate puberty of the preferred sex, which would produce some much-desired “gender markers”.

When a child has been clear about their gender identity and not transitioning causes distress, transitioning young can be incredibly beneficial to the individual. While not all transgender people are focused on “passing”, it is hugely important to many. “Passing” means being read in society as the gender with which you identify in your brain. Going to the grocery store and having the cashier address them with the correct gender pronouns… that is “passing”. Transitioning early and intervening before puberty takes over will allow that individual to pass as his or her “true” gender without question.

One thing I want to say is that I know many people worry that a very young child is too young to make such a big “decision”. I want to remind you that gender identity is not a decision. We all know very early on what gender we are. A transgender child of Ryland’s age is not making a “huge decision” to be a boy. He IS a boy. His parents were faced with a huge decision about allowing him to transition, and they made it based on Ryland’s asserted gender identity.

I thought Good Morning America did a good job of covering this video. I was pleased about the input from ABC’s Chief Health and Medical Editor, Dr. Richard Besser. “The more we’re learning about gender, the more we’re learning that this is really hard-wired. It’s hard-wired in the brain. And from very early, from the first couple years of life, children will recognize gender and then start to identify with gender.” My only feedback would be that he should have used male pronouns when referring to a transgender boy.

One thing that didn’t sit right with me was the way they worded the “teaser” for the upcoming segment on the video. “True Identity: The incredible story being shared coast to coast of one little girl who just wanted to be a boy. Why her parents encouraged her to change gender.”

This statement is misleading at best. First of all, this child is not a little girl. This child did not “want to be a boy”, this child has the brain gender identity of a boy. As the video said, this child did not say “I want to be a boy”, he said “I AM a boy”. Now, I understand those snippets are meant to be short and can’t cover it all, and they are geared to having people tune in to watch the segment. The part that got me the most was the last sentence: “Why her parents encouraged her to change gender.” If you are the parent of a transgender child, you probably understand why that sounds a little silly. Do these parents have some sort of ulterior motive to have a transgender child? Doubt it. Was this in their master plan? Likely not. Many of the parents of young transgender children I work with struggle extensively during the process of understanding their child’s true gender identity. It takes time to accept their child is transgender, and naturally, parents tend to agonize over allowing their child to transition. Supporting and responding appropriately to their child’s gender identity is not encouraging something that wasn’t there; you can’t make a child transgender. However, supporting and encouraging the child to live life as their true selves, that is selfless, unconditional love. For more reflections on how difficult and intense this journey can be for parents, see my blog post “Feelin’ The Love: Watching the Journey of Parents”.

In the video, the song fades from “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley to “Good Life” by One Republic as it shows Ryland transitioning. I think it was the perfect song choice. So many parents worry whether or not their transgender child can have a good life. The answer is: ABSOLUTELY. Thank you to Ryland and his family for being selfless and strong enough to share your story so that many more transgender children can have good lives, just like you.

On Being “Sure”

One of the first things that comes to most loved ones’ minds when told about someone’s transgender identity or plans to transition is “Are you sure??” In fact, this is often a question many of my pre-transition clients are asking themselves; “Am I sure??”. The question is worth asking, but the answer may not be a simple “yes” or “no”.

Most people are pretty darn sure of their gender identity. Cisgender and transgender alike, most are pretty darn sure. What confounds things is that only transgender people have to navigate through having a brain gender identity that differs from their birth sex, and having to first understand and then explain this to others. Still, most are pretty darn sure. Remember, gender identity is different than making the decision to transition. Often times, knowing one’s gender identity is the “easy” part. Pursuing a life to align one’s gender presentation with one’s brain gender identity? Now that’s the more challenging part.

So, “Are you sure?”. If you are a loved one who finds yourself asking this question, try to clarify what you are asking about. Are you asking about your loved one’s gender identity or plans to transition? If you separate the two, you may find more confidence in the first than the latter. If your loved one is sure of their (trans)gender identity, asking if they are sure about their transition may contribute to fears and anxieties surrounding this “decision”. Instead, ask “How can I help? What’s the first step?”.

Many clients I’ve met with who are contemplating transition have said to me, “I want to be 100% sure”.  My clients tend to be intelligent, high-functioning individuals who are used to doing things well, and they want this to be no exception. They research, they inquire, they ruminate, they agonize, they weigh the risks and benefits ad nauseum. After all this, they are still “not sure”. Why? Because there ARE risks, and because the process isn’t easy. Therefore, anxiety about this huge undertaking can be interpreted as not being “sure”. Again, not so much about the gender identity- if I can bring them back to that aspect of themselves instead of just the “decision” to transition, they are much more sure about their gender identity. A good example might be left-handedness. People are born left-handed, no? It used to be lefties were encouraged to use their right hands until it became habit. Gender identity is similar in that it is inborn.  It can be stifled to present differently, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the person. And what gender one presents as is far more pervasive than which hand is dominant!

One of my clients, a happy and insightful trans man, made mention to not feeling completely sure until AFTER he had transitioned. I later contacted him to write a little blurb for this blog post, and he delivered beautifully. Here is what he had to say:

“To be honest I wasn’t 100% sure about transitioning until I was already pretty far into it. One day about 4 years in I looked in the mirror and for the first time in my life I recognized myself. I don’t think you can ever be 100% sure about anything in life, any decision, any path…it’s all educated guesses wrapped up in a hope for happiness.”

Isn’t this the case for most things? We make huge decisions all the time that will affect the rest of our lives: where to live, where to go to school, the career path to follow, to marry or not to marry, if yes who to marry, to have kids or not have kids, if yes how many, etc. Yet these decisions typically aren’t as agonized over as much or as misunderstood as gender transition.

I’m reluctant to compare gender transition to getting married, but the analogy really sticks in my mind. How many people are “sure” when they get married that they will be with the other person “forever”? Of the couples who eventually divorce, if you could ask them “but were you SURE when you got married?”, most of them would unequivocally say “yes”. Some may argue that gender transition is a more “serious” decision than getting married, but is it? Marriages often result in children, who are thereby affected by a divorce if it were to occur. If a capable individual decides to get married, they get married. However, if a capable individual decides to go through gender transition, the issue of being “sure” is one they will have to answer over and over again. I guess it’s because other people can understand marriage, but have a harder time wrapping their brains around gender transition. However, this should not matter when it comes to others and their decisions about their own lives. Not to mention the rate of transgender individuals later “changing their minds” about transition is FAR, FAR less than the current rate of successful vs. unsuccessful marriages!

I suppose feeling more at ease with one’s decision comes down to trust. If your loved one is telling you who they are what they have decided to do, trust them. If you are transgender and have decided to transition, trust yourself. If the person making this decision is of sound judgment and mind, there is no real reason to think this is an irrational decision that will ever be regretted. Additionally, if one has come to the decision to transition, it has not come lightly. Many transgender people agonize about the decision to transition long after one’s true gender identity has become consciously aware.

Perhaps being “sure” is an evolutionary process, and one that can only happen after the first step. I do know that trusting yourself is a good idea… of that I am sure. 😉

For those of you how have transitioned, how “sure” did you feel before? After?

Helping Your Gender-Expansive Child With Teasing (Gender Spectrum Workshop)

Due to a family emergency, I was forced to cancel my presentation at Gender Spectrum this year. My workshop was titled, “Helping Your Gender-Expansive Child With Teasing”. I have been contacted by parents who had anticipated attending the workshop and who had been looking forward to gathering information on the topic. For that purpose, I’ve outlined and summarized what I was going to discuss. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions! An important part of my workshop was going to be role playing, so if that makes you squirm, you got lucky… this time. 😉

My presentation was going to be based largely on this blog post: Your Gender Variant Child: Teasing.

Please read it before reading this blog post if you haven’t already.

One of the main points of my previous blog post was about the importance of parents avoiding warning a child about how their interests, way of dress, etc. may result in teasing. This increases anxiety and makes the child wary, rather than equipping them with coping skills.

Helping Your Gender Nonconforming Child With Teasing

Key concepts:

Gender Identity: How someone identifies in his or her brain; male or female.

Gender Expression: How a person may choose to dress or express gender; feminine or masculine.   May be in line with gender identity or may not; may be in line with assigned birth gender and may not.

Gender Nonconformity: Conform means to “behave according to socially acceptable conventions or standards”. Being gender nonconforming is not subscribing to society’s gender “rules”; what colors/dress/interests are for girls and which are for boys. These societal rules are always changing, and it’s my belief these gender rules won’t always be so rigid.

Coaching your child: It’s our job as parents to teach our kids how to behave, right? Remember, gender identity is not a behavior. It is simply a core characteristic of a person: whether they feel male or female. Gender expression, if it is a reflection of their gender identity, is not a behavior that should be molded or changed to prevent teasing. If your child has a behavior that is negatively impacting others, and is a behavior they can change, coach them about this. (Examples of this might be if they themselves are teasing peers, if they are physically aggressive, bossy in play, etc.) If it’s not a behavior they can change, teach them how to care for themselves in response to behavior from others.

Why do kids tease?

There are so many reasons why kids tease: because they themselves have been teased, they want to feel powerful, they want to impress other kids, etc.

Why does gender nonconformity elicit teasing? A gender variant child is even more susceptible to teasing given that they tend to behave or dress in a way that can be unexpected by other children or deemed by other children to be “different”. As most of us know, those that are “different” or in the minority are more likely to be teased, get teased more often, and often more severely than other children.

Also, kids are focused on rules. Since the day they begin exploring their world, they begin learning about rules. Don’t touch that, don’t do that, can’t go there, don’t eat that, etc. It’s how kids learn about the world around them and learn what works. Things fit into categories so that it makes the world make sense. The more one is able to categorize something, the less thinking one has to do about it, and the less discomfort it brings up. When something doesn’t follow the “rules” a child has been taught, there is discomfort, possible anxiety- and kids work to have their world make sense again. They have been taught specific rules, “pink is for girls, boys don’t cry, girls don’t like sports, boys can’t wear skirts, etc.” When a peer’s gender expression doesn’t fall in line with these “rules”, kids can compulsively make it their job to let them know they are not following the “rules”. Additionally, because kids are essentially being controlled much of the time, it is likely an outlet for them to try to be the one to control others occasionally.

Teasing vs. Bullying- what’s the difference?

Teasing: Can be done by friends or kids who are not friends, can be done in a friendly/fun way, or in a mean way. Typically mild by nature. Does not cause major distress on behalf of the child being teased.

Bullying: Greater intensity, more frequent, and can also be much more hurtful or damaging. Typically mean-spirited.

Important distinctions between the two: teasing is a behavior or an act that is temporary or occasional. Bullying may be ongoing, daily, etc. Most important clarification is how much distress it brings to your child. If child starts to have somatic complaints (headaches, stomachaches), wants to avoid school, etc. they may likely be getting bullied at school.

Responses by caregivers to both:

Teasing: Caregivers process incident (talk about feelings) with child and empower child to stand up for self, ignore, problem solve.

Bullying: Caregivers may need to intervene, get school (or other) authorities involve, advocate, make sure bullying is addressed.

Ways to support and empower your gender nonconforming child:

  • Stay connected. Ask the best and worst parts of day at bedtime/dinnertime. If your child seems to clam up under one-on-one questioning, as questions in the car. With your eyes on the road and not on the child, some children tend to open up more.
  • When your child reports teasing, ask questions; fight the impulse to just give “answers”. You will find out a lot more about your child’s feelings about and ability to handle the teasing if you avoid jumping in and trying to “fix”.
  • Again, don’t warn about the potential to be teased. If your child asks if you think they may be teased, be honest. “Maybe.” Ask questions. “What do you think?” Model confidence that even if you do think teasing may result, your child can handle it. (If you are nervous about the potential of your child being teased for an interest, toy, clothing choice, don’t show it. Fake it ‘till you make it! J)
  • If your child comes home and is sad or upset about teasing they encountered, ACT like it’s not upsetting to you. You can show compassion for your child without showing it is hurting you.  Your child may avoid telling you about being teased if they know it upsets you. See my first blog about teasing to read about ways to take care of your feelings.
  • Support your child’s true self at home.  Teach your child I AM AWESOME JUST THE WAY I AM, until they believe it and it is a part of their core self.  (This is important for ALL kids, not just gender nonconforming kids!)
  • Model appropriate responses to others if they question or mock your child’s gender expression or reflection of gender identity. Be it in response to a family friend or a stranger at the grocery store, don’t apologize for your child’s behavior, gender expression, etc. or act like you are sorry for how your child is making them feel.

Equipping Your Child

Work with your child on having a toolbox of responses (both verbal and behavioral) to teasing. You can write these down and put them in an actual box your child can revisit from time to time. Or, make a list you can review in the car on the way to school.

  • Verbal responses are best used in regards to children your child considers to be a friend. “That hurts my feelings”, “Please don’t say that”, “Please stop”, etc. (Saying these verbal responses to children who are not your child’s friend, or who are mean to your child on a consistent basis, may open your child up to more teasing.)
  • Practice assertiveness skills. Chin up, eye contact, shoulders back, looking strong. Facing the person they are talking to. Using a firm but kind voice.
  • First teasing is usually a “test”- help them pass. Explain the importance of “acting” like it doesn’t bother them. If a child senses the teasing has “gotten to” your child, it may fuel the fire. Teach your child to hold back emotion until they are in a safe place or speaking to an adult they trust. Also discuss the importance of not “fighting back” with their own mean words.
  • Ignore. Act as though the other child is invisible. Can’t see ‘em, can’t hear ‘em.
  • Walk away! Move to another area of the playground. Approach another group of kids or another kid who is typically friendly.
  • Stay in adult eyesight or earshot. Kids aren’t going to relentlessly tease or bully other kids who are near an adult. Talk with your child about what it might look like if they were “subtly” trying to stay near an adult.
  • Get adult help. If the teasing is getting to your child, your child is having difficulty ignoring, may act out in response to the teasing, or is in physical danger, teach your child to get adult help right away. Explain the importance of saying “I need help because ____________” rather than presenting it as “telling on” a peer.
  • Role play! I can’t stress the importance of role plays enough. If your child reports being teased, or is worried themselves about being teased, practice at home. Have your child tease you, and model appropriate responses. Then switch!

Dealing with teasing can be stressful for both the gender nonconforming child and their parent(s). I hope these tips make you and your child feel somewhat more equipped! Please feel free to comment about other specific topics you would like to see covered in this blog.

Published in: on August 1, 2013 at 5:56 pm  Comments (6)  

Simply Put: Worksheets for children about gender identity and transition

When I was asked to help a child understand the gender transition their loved one was about to go through, I created a one-page overview of the process in simple terms. I also created a little “worksheet” that would encourage the child to think about how this change was going to affect them, and their loved one, specifically. The worksheet facilitates conversations between the child and adults; fill-in-the-blanks are a great way to find out what is on a child’s mind. While I was at it, I created a one-page summary for gender nonconforming children, complete with a brief fill-in-the-blank portion at the bottom.

These summaries/worksheets have come in very handy when working with transgender youth and the young loved ones of my transgender adult clients. I thought others may benefit from using them as well, so they are attached below. Please feel free to use, copy, and distribute as needed to assist children on their journey to understanding. (Who knows, sometimes concepts stated in simple terms can help adults, too. ;)).

For those of you not in the field of mental health or well-trained in interviewing children, here are a few tips for completing this worksheet:

  • Don’t make a big deal of the sheet. Just say you’re going to do a little something and do it. Act like it’s no big deal and you’re not nervous, even if you are.
  • Don’t look at the child being interviewed. Look at the worksheet.
  • Poise your pen or pencil over the blanks and begin asking the questions. Write the answer in the blank as soon as they are stated, without a reaction (facial expression, question, anything!) Children are incredibly in tune with others’ responses to what they are saying, particularly if the “other” is a parent.
  • When the worksheet is completed, go back and ask questions for clarification.

If you have any trouble with the way they are opening on your computer or printing out, please email me at tandotherapy@me.com and I will email you copies.

Kidworksheet

kidinfotrans

transitionworksheet

Your Gender-Expansive Child: Teasing

Most children get teased at one point or another in school. Sadly, teasing has become part of the social culture at schools and often goes on away from adult supervision. A gender variant child is even more susceptible to teasing given that they tend to behave or dress in a way that can be unexpected by other children or deemed by other children to be “different”. As most of us know, those that are “different” or in the minority are more likely to be teased, get teased more often, and often more severely than other children.

You know that one tone of voice children use when tattling? “MOO-ooomm, Johnny HIT Meeee!”. It’s universal. I’m convinced kids are born knowing how to use this voice, without ever having it modeled for them. Parents have a similar standard tone/cadence when warning their child about natural and logical consequences to choices. “Okaaayy, you can go on that water ride, but you’ll probably get soaked and feel cold the rest of the day!”. It just comes with the parenting territory. Letting your child choose behaviors while warning possible ramifications is a parenting basic.

Warning about being teased for being gender nonconforming gets tricky, however. Being gender nonconforming is not a behavior; it is a way a person is. Warning about teasing that may come from displaying a core characteristic/something the child cannot change is dangerous territory. Yes, the child can choose to act on or express their way of being, or choose to inhibit it. But they cannot change being gender nonconforming or transgender.  While I can appreciate and recognize a parent’s urge to warn and possibly prevent teasing that may come from a way of dress, behavior, or interest, this can quickly be translated to shame and self doubt. The problem is, in these scenarios we’re not talking about nose-picking or some other minor social infractions that a child can learn how to avoid. We’re talking about children being who they are, and who are doing absolutely nothing wrong. “Warning” the child  by saying something like “If you choose to play with ‘boy things’, you might get teased at school”, “Girls don’t usually have really short hair, so you might get teased,  but you can cut it if you want”, “Boys don’t usually walk or talk like that, but if you want to go ahead. Just know you might get teased” may not have the protective nature parents are going for.  In fact, it may teach the child to prescribe to what others say is the best way for them to be. Remember my Oxygen blog? Much like you wouldn’t “warn” a child about being teased for wearing an oxygen tank to combat oxygen deprivation, try not to warn your gender nonconforming child to avoid their natural gender expression.

I want to again acknowledge that most parents are coming from a very loving place when they explain what may lay ahead. My worry is that this can instill fear and dread in the place of blissful innocence. It may make the child LESS equipped to deal with the teasing that may come with being gender nonconforming.  If my parents had sat me down as a child and said, “Just so you know, little girls with hazel eyes sometimes get teased. Some people think hazel eyes are wrong and some people just don’t like kids with hazel eyes.  You can go ahead and wear those hazel eyes to school, but just know you might get teased”, I would have experienced childhood differently. I may have been fearful to let my true eye color show, even though I couldn’t change it. I may have looked at (or looked away from) everyone I met with just a little bit of suspicion or mistrust. I may have thought, “Is this one of the people who hate kids with hazel eyes?”. I may have chosen to grow up wearing sunglasses, even indoors. Many parents warn their children about being gender nonconforming much in the same way, even though it’s not something the child can change. Yes, the child could change their behavior to HIDE who they really are, but that’s not what we want for our children, is it?  Children become inhibited based on the response of others soon enough.

So, what’s a parent to do? Parents can help their child by unconditionally supporting who they are on the inside so they know without a doubt I AM AWESOME JUST THE WAY I AM.  This won’t prevent the pain associated with teasing, but it will help build the ego strength in the child so that they understand their basic worth doesn’t change based on what others say.

If your child asks you if you think they may be teased for wearing something, doing something, etc., be honest. Say “maybe”, and then discuss how the child might best handle it.  Communicate (even if you have to “fake it”) that you know your child will be ok even if they are teased. This energy is something they will absorb from you.

If your child comes home and reports being teased, ASK QUESTIONS; you don’t have to be the one with all the answers. This will help you get a feel for how much understanding your child has about the reasons behind the teasing. “Why do you think they teased you about wearing a skirt?” “Why do you think they said that?” (Not what they are used to, they don’t understand, they feel differently, etc.)

At dinnertime, bedtime, etc. ask your child about the best and worst parts of their day. If they report teasing, process it with them. Talk with them about how it made them feel, and how they can take care of themselves when they have that feeling. Discuss and practice possible responses based on the teasing so they feel more equipped should it happen again.

Last but not least, take care of yourself and your own feelings! Listening about your child being teased can be a very hard thing for a parent to take. Talk to your friends, talk to other parents, talk to a therapist. Remind yourself this is not something you can “fix” or prevent, but you are doing right by your child by nurturing his or her true self.

Feelin’ The Love: Watching the journey of parents

My work with my transgender clients often includes not only the transgender individual, but the family as well. As important as it is to be an advocate for my clients, it’s also essential I understand the process that is being undertaken by the loved ones of the individual. (See “It’s Hard for Moms”.) Many parents of my adult clients are very resistant to the idea of their “child” being transgender or transitioning, and are initially quite wary of me for supporting this venture. Typically with my adult clients I only hear of the resistance expressed by the parents without witnessing it directly. In session, I am privy to the intense longing of the individual for support and acceptance by their parents, no matter how old they may be.  This is yet another reminder that unconditional love from parents is crucial at every stage in one’s life.

When I work with parents of transgender youth, it’s a little different story. These parents are willingly seeking gender therapy for their children, searching for answers and a roadmap for this unforeseen journey. Fear and resistance are often still a part of the work, but there’s so much more than that.

I have seen parents evolve in the journey with their transgender/gender nonconforming child from tearful and terrified to peaceful and resolute. I’ve seen parents give their child space to express themselves in a way that allows the child to be honored and embraced, even if the parents are scared by the possible ramifications. Some parents accept very quickly while others fight to hang onto what feels safer and more familiar. Some become advocates, others are willing to share their stories, still others remain very private; all of them intensely love their child. To see a parent accept something they never wanted or saw coming is a source of true inspiration for me, and a very touching part of the work I do. I respect and admire these parents more than they know.

The passion I sense from these parents for their child can be expressed in all sorts of ways: fear, anger, pride, doubt, guilt, sadness, grief, bravery; the list goes on and on. I’ve always loved children, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I could truly understand the passionate love a parent has for their child. The kind of love that makes you willing to do anything for another’s happiness, willing to sacrifice, fight, and conquer all for the sake of your little person even in the face of your own anxiety or trepidation.

Sometimes I feel hot tears spring to my eyes* in the middle of one of these sessions with parents, especially with those early in the journey. What brings on these tears? Is it sadness? No. It’s not quite something I can explain. It feels like a mixture of compassion, inspiration, and awe at the intense love I’m witnessing, along with honor that I get to be a part of such a life-changing journey.  I’m definitely feeling the love, and in the end, I know the child will too.

*Not a robot.

Gender Lesson: For Schools

I created this “gender lesson” for teachers to present in schools based on the needs of gender nonconforming children I see in my private practice and those I read about online. Please share with any and all classrooms/teachers! Below is the lesson, and following that will be a PDF with the lesson and a list of “expectations” that can be posted in the classroom.

This lesson was created in particular for those teachers who have gender nonconforming children in their classrooms. However, it is my belief that this curriculum is needed in ALL classrooms, to change society’s stereotypes, reduce stigmatization of children, decrease bullying, and increase acceptance of each other.

This lesson is to be presented at the very beginning of the school year to set standards of expectations for behavior, and can be reviewed as needed throughout the school year. It should be appropriate for grades K-5; please modify as needed. Role plays are included at the end of the lesson for comprehension reinforcement. Give the child the scenario and have them attempt the correct response first; give suggestions as needed. Lastly, please hang the attached rules in your classroom as a reminder of the acceptance that is expected.

For a very long time, people have been separating things into what girls like and what boys like. A lot of people think these things are very different, and call them “boy things” and “girl things”. Have YOU noticed that?

What are some things some people might say are “girl things” or “boy things”?  What might some people say are “girl toys” and “boy toys”?

The truth is, all children get to pick what they like, and everyone likes different things.  Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a “boy thing” or a “girl thing”. Some kids are boys who like things that other people think are for girls. Some kids are girls who like things that other people think are for boys. It can hurt their feelings if you or someone else says something to them about it, or acts like there are rules about how someone should be. That would be like saying only girls can eat ice cream, and only boys can eat jelly beans!! That would just be SILLY! Sweets and treats are to be enjoyed by everyone, just like most things in life. 🙂

Are there certain colors that some people think only girls like and colors that only boys like? Most people think girls like pink and purple, which is ok, but it’s silly to think that ONLY girls like pink and purple! There are plenty of boys out there who like pink and purple, too. Lots of people think only boys can like blue! Girls can like blue, too. All the colors of the rainbow are for everyone, and it’s fun that we all get to pick our favorite. You don’t want anyone telling YOU what your favorite color should be, do you??

Some people also have very strong ideas about how boys and girls should look and dress. Is it ok for some girls to have short hair, and some boys to have long hair? Of course it is!  How someone chooses to dress is up to them, too. Some girls wear skirts and dresses, and some girls wear shorts and pants. Some boys wear shorts and pants, and some boys wear skirts and dresses.  This may surprise some people, but it certainly isn’t wrong.

How someone dresses and wears their hair is a part of their “style”. Everyone’s style is different! What if everyone were to dress and look exactly alike? BOR-ING!  The next time you see someone who wears their hair a little different than you expected or is wearing something that surprises you, be kind and say, “I like your style”.

How wonderful would it be to have a classroom (or a WORLD) where kids just get to like what they like? Are you ready to help create a world like that?

One of the most important things to remember is to be KIND to one another. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were the other person. Be sure to avoid saying anything that would hurt someone else’s feelings. If you can see another kid likes something, don’t tell them why they shouldn’t. Remind yourself, “different people like different things”, “it’s OK to be different”, and “I am accepting of others”.

If you hear someone telling another kid there are rules about how to play, how to be, or how to dress, stand up for them! Remember, you are helping create a world that is more accepting. Nicely tell the other person what you have learned from this lesson. You can say something like this:

“That’s their style, and I like it.”

“Anyone can play with anything.”

“Everyone is different. Different people like different things.”

“Please don’t tease my friend. I like him/her just the way he/she is.”

Remember:

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “BOY THING” OR A “GIRL THING”!

All toys are for all children.

Colors are for everyone.

People are different, and everyone likes different things.

Everyone gets to pick how they wear their hair.

Everyone gets to pick the way they dress.

Everyone gets to pick their own style.

Role Plays:

Act out the RIGHT way to handle the following situations:

You are playing house, and a girl wants to be the dad.

You hear someone teasing a boy about wearing a skirt.

A group of boys playing soccer tells a girl, “You can’t play! No girls allowed!”

You’re having a tea party and a boy wants to join in.

You see a girl getting teased for having short hair.

You see a boy wearing a pink backpack.

In Our Classroom…

We are kind to each other.

All toys are for all children.

Colors are for everyone.

Everyone gets to pick their own style.

Being different is OK.

We stand up for others.

GENDER LESSON PDF

Choosing/Evaluating a Gender Therapist for Your Child

The Hunt

Finding a good gender therapist for your child can be a daunting task. If you are in the process of looking for a gender therapist, this means there is already a lot going on in your family! Gender dysphoria or gender nonconformity can at times cause distress for parents and the child who is experiencing it.

There doesn’t seem to be many of us out there (gender therapists who work with gender nonconforming youth), and I wish there were more. So once you’ve found one in your area (or relatively close to you), how do you know if the therapist is a “good” one? As with every profession and specialty, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly.

If someone claims to be a gender “expert”, don’t just assume your hunt is over. Ask questions (see below for a sample list) and go with your gut instincts.  Ultimately, YOU are the expert on your child.

After you have met with the therapist for 1-3 times, re-evaluate how the sessions are going for both you and your child. Is your child comfortable? Are you? If not, address your concerns with the therapist.  The therapist should be open to your feedback and be able to explain their reasoning behind the treatment methods. If things don’t change, begin your search again!

Let the Client (Child) Lead

As with any therapy, or reason for seeking therapy, the gender therapist should not enter into therapeutic work with you and your family with an agenda. If you get the sense on the phone that they have their mind on accomplishing something (such as getting your child to transition or not transition), consider that a red flag. Every child and family is different, with a different story and different needs. Some of the interventions and suggestions will be similar to those used with other families, but most will be tailor-made to your family.

Your child will be the best source of information re: their gender identity. Children of a very young age are aware of what gender they are, and/or what gender expression they are comfortable with. You, the parent(s), will be excellent historians for how your child has expressed their gender from an early age, current significant behaviors, etc. Of course, part of the gender therapist’s job will be working with the parents in regards to their feelings about their child’s gender nonconformity, and feelings about potential options for their child.

Red Herrings

Many parents see their child’s gender nonconformity AND a lot of other emotions and behaviors. Some of these emotions and behaviors will be related to their child’s gender identity; others may not. Those that seem unrelated to the gender identity but may actually be symptoms of the distress the gender nonconformity is causing are what I call “red herrings”. The gender therapist can help you sift through some of these factors to find out what needs to be addressed first. It is common for some emotions and behaviors to be resolved once the gender identity is validated. One good way to narrow down what is really going on for your child is to focus on what seems to be causing the most distress. For example, if your child is having social skills problems, academic problems, gender nonconformity/expressions of gender identity that does not match their body, anger outbursts, and anxiety, what seems to bring them the most mental distress? What do they talk about the most? What do they shed the most tears over? This is what needs to be addressed first.

Often times things such as the anger outbursts/academic problems are what bring the parents the most distress, and therefore this is what the parents want addressed first. This may be like putting a Band-Aid on something without treating the cause. In some cases, it will be the therapist’s job to gently prevent you, the parents/guardians, from following the red herrings. If your gender therapist seems determined to only focus on these other things, and not address the gender issues, this should also be a red flag for you. While you may feel some relief that the gender therapist is recommending holding off on making any major decisions or is wanting to address everything else other than the gender identity, pay attention to what your gut is telling you. You know your child. If the therapist’s recommendations seem to bring your child more distress, something has gone awry!

Hormone Suppression/Therapy

Your gender therapist may help you (and your child) explore whether or not your child is gender nonconforming or transgender. If the consensus is your child is the latter, your gender therapist can help you navigate the next steps in your child’s journey. Your gender therapist can be your ally in deciding if hormone blockers/therapy is the right decision for your child, and if so, when to start. Sometimes, making this move can help ease some of the other symptoms that may have arisen for your child. Many times the child may express being ready for hormone blockers or hormones before the parents feel ready. The gender therapist can help parents walk through many of the anxious and difficult feelings that may arise during this significant decision-making time.

Structure of Sessions

There is no exact science to how a gender therapist might structure their sessions with you, but in general there should be a good balance of meeting with you and meeting with your child. The therapist should meet alone with you as part of the assessment process and at other times as needed throughout treatment. This is because you need to have free reign to say what you want to say about your child’s gender expression and your feelings about it. Your child should not hear all of your thoughts, opinions, and feelings about their gender expression or possible transgender identity. Children tend to try to take care of their parents and avoid causing their parents distress; therefore hearing statements made my parents (particularly those expressing resistance) can impact their ability to say what they want and need in regards to gender expression, transitioning, etc. This can have serious ramifications on their mental health and futures.

Similarly, your child should have the opportunity to speak alone with the gender therapist and speak their mind without censoring things out of regard for their parents. The gender therapist will not tell you exactly what your child has said while in private, but should help your child communicate better with you when you are all together. For this reason, joint sessions are also called for when it comes to working with youth. It is important for family members to learn how to talk to one another about the gender identity issues, and to become more comfortable with the topic. Additionally, parents tend to be better historians and reporters of behaviors, which can be extremely beneficial to the treatment course.

Sample Questions to Ask a Potential Gender Therapist

  1. What is your opinion about how young a child can understand their gender identity?
  2. What is your general opinion on letting a child express their own gender identity?
  3. What are your thoughts on hormone blockers/therapy for youth?
  4. How long have you worked with children?
  5. Are you experienced in building rapport with children?
  6. Have you been trained in how to talk to and interview children in a non-leading manner?
  7. How involved are the parent(s) in the therapy with the child?

If you are struggling to find a gender therapist that is right for your family, reach out for help. TransYouth Family Allies is a great resource. If you join TYFA Talk, you can chat with other families and get information about what resources are out there. Wishing you all the best on YOUR journeys!

*Special thanks to Kim Pearson of TYFA who requested this piece to present at this year’s Gender Odyssey Family Conference.

**While this post was written specifically for parents finding a gender therapist for their child, many elements can be applied to the gender nonconforming or transgender adult. Go with your gut! Find a therapist who will support you in your journey and help you access resources. If it doesn’t feel right to you, keep looking.

Published in: on August 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm  Comments (3)  

The Gender Identity of Children

I am thrilled to be seeing more and more transgender children as part of my practice. To me, it’s a very natural combination of two of my specialties: working with children, and working with transgender individuals! I have a special place in my heart for these gender nonconforming children, because I feel like in some way it’s a way of honoring my adult transgender clients. For many of them, if not all, having their gender identity heard and addressed as children would have made their life paths a lot easier.

I’ve had people ask me if children can really understand their gender identity at a young age. My answer is, “of course!”.  Most of us know what gender we are from a very young age. We don’t have to think much about it; our assigned gender matches our natal sex (sex at birth) and becomes part of our stats, like where we live, what color hair we have, etc. For gender nonconforming/transgender children, this is not so simple. They may feel a discomfort with their body or assigned gender, pronouns, etc. However, typically this comes from being denied being able to partake in an activity or interest that is typically not seen as acceptable for one’s assigned gender. For children who are not allowed to express themselves in their preferred gender, or the interests come naturally to them, I believe this creates a feeling of unrest (at best); deep shame and resentment at worst.

Children are concrete, and are more interested in what they want to DO and what kind of fun they want to have than abstractly thinking about what gender or societal category they fit into. Additionally, children don’t have the baggage and the tendency to over-think the way we adults do. They know what they know, and they feel what they feel. In some ways this makes expressing one’s gender identity much simpler, especially if the child is in an environment that encourages natural and genuine expression of self. If a child engages in play that society does not typically categorize as that of their assigned gender, let them. This behavior could mean any number of things, but the most important message is “you are ok any way you are”. Some parents worry about future teasing, and discourage them from engaging in behaviors to prevent teasing in other environments. This is a valid concern which I don’t mean to minimize. Certainly the parents can explain the likely response of others (informed consent, if you will) and then equip, equip, equip with coping skills to deal with these responses. (Helping your gender nonconforming child deal with teasing is such an important topic I promise to address it more in a future blog.) For now, I will say that beyond equipping your child to deal with teasing, establishing that pure and unconditional acceptance at home is the most crucial part of growing up.

Most gender nonconforming children understand “the rules”, and the expectations in their family/society/community/school.  They may know how they feel and who they are, but most also understand what others think and what others want. They learn to “play the game” as we all do, giving answers to make others feel better, even when it’s not the truth. Parents unknowingly ask leading questions all the time, and kids know what their parents want to hear.

Additionally, some children simply don’t have the verbal skills to express what they want or how badly they want it. Other children are not aware of their gender incongruence until puberty (at which times it often becomes a feeling of crisis). Many people are not aware until adulthood! This blog is specifically in regards to children who have their gender incongruence present in their consciousness from a very early age.

If your child who was born a natal female says “I’m a boy”, “I wish I were a boy”, or asks Santa for a penis, listen up. If your natal male says “I’m a girl”, “I wish I were a girl”, or prays to wake up the next morning a girl, listen up. These children know how they feel, and need your help. I’ll be writing more blogs about what to do if you are a family in this situation… stay tuned. 🙂