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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It’s Hard For Moms

I have a lot of respect for Chaz Bono. Being the child of a superstar like Cher, coming out as trans and transitioning under the spotlight no doubt makes a frightening and difficult process all the more so. He has been very visible and vocal in order to educate the public and pave the way for other transgender individuals. As he said on the Oprah special, “I’m doing this because I want to try to help people…I want to try to put a face on an issue that people don’t understand. That’s why I did this publicly.” And now to push himself further out of his comfort zone and appear on Dancing With the Stars… wow. My hat’s off to you, Chaz.

He said something in response to a question from a fan about his mother Cher’s response to his transition that really stuck with me, and I think it summarizes an aspect of one’s gender transition beautifully.

The fan said, “I would think your mom would accept it real well!”

Chaz’s response? “It’s hard for moms.”

Yes, even Cher. Even the leather-wearing, booty-revealing, sex symbol/gay icon mom!

This process is indeed hard for moms; likely for all parents and guardians. This element is something that is a large part of the work I do with my transgender clients. Inevitably my job in therapy is part helping the individual transition and process emotions that accompany that; part is helping them cope with responses from others and understand what the process might be like for their loved ones.

When becoming a parent, the prospect of one’s child becoming a different gender than originally thought is not usually within one’s realm of possibility. Parents often begin planning, fantasizing, and formulating expectations for their child’s life as soon as they’re born; often as soon as they are conceived. Gender plays a big part in these expectations which then have to shift a great deal when the gender nonconformity or different gender identity is revealed.  This comes as a shock to most parents, and it can be difficult to wrap one’s brain around, particularly if the parents have not previously had experience with someone who is gender variant.

Of course, responses vary from one extreme to the other. Some parents get on board soon after hearing their child verbally reveal their true gender identity. Although rare, this can be related to seeing many signs of gender variance since early childhood, or sensing an unknown source of distress and seeing the relief the gender revelation brings. Other parents fight it and resist for many years, struggling to have any type of acceptance. This is the more common response, likely due to the parents having to shift ideas they had been formulating about their child’s life since the child was born. There is also a distinct element of fear; fear they will “lose” their child, or that their child will become unfamiliar to them. This usually is not the case (post-transition often being easier than expected and realizing their child is still the same person), but that “What If?” is sure powerful.

I have sat in many a session and witnessed two people in pain: the transgender individual, wanting desperately to be accepted and supported in the daunting process of transitioning, and the parent, wishing this were not true, wanting it to go away.

Some of the feelings a loved one might feel are likely similar to feelings the transgender person has already gone through prior to disclosing their gender identity or plans to transition. Many have walked through the fear, the wishing away, the major adjustment to how life is going to change.

If you are a gender variant person expressing your true gender or looking to transition, and your mom, parent, or loved one is struggling with it, take heart. Even though it’s hard for them, acceptance is possible. It may be closer than you think. While you are on your own journey, your loved ones are on theirs, and all of you deserve compassion, patience, and tolerance. When you find yourself getting discouraged, remind yourself, “It’s hard for ___________”, filling in the blank with your loved one who is struggling.

If you are a parent of a gender non-conforming child or adult, and you have struggled with negative feelings about your child’s gender expression or transition, be kind to yourself. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of acceptance, please don’t judge yourself for having feelings about this. It’s important you take care of yourself while taking care of your child. Having feelings of fear, dread, sadness, or loss doesn’t make you bad; it makes you human. Walking through these feelings to get to the other side is a part of the process. I can’t underscore the importance of getting to the other side, though… and eventually being able to support your child’s decision with the unconditional love they absolutely need, no matter how old they are. The significance of the parent/child relationship is both what makes this difficult on you, and why your acceptance is crucial to your child’s happiness. Ultimately, your acceptance will likely be one of the most important aspects on your child’s journey. So on this journey to acceptance and support (and anyone can get there!), validate your feelings, find a place to be heard, talk to other parents in your situation. Because yes… it’s hard for moms.