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.

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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. 🙂