Supporting children in gender diversity is essential for them to have healthy self-esteem and grow up into confident, happy and well-adjusted adults.
Is it a boy or a girl? This is one of the first questions asked when a new life enters the world. Even before birth, we are curious about the gender of a baby. Once we know that the baby is a boy or a girl, it can influence so much- the colour of clothes, decoration of nurseries/bedrooms, the type of toys and most importantly, how we perceive and treat the child.
Little boys are so often seen as tough, rowdy bruisers and little girls as sensitive, beautiful princesses. Parents, other family members, friends and general society subtly and explicitly encourage gender norms from the time we are born, to the time we die. It is worth considering what gender actually is.
Undoubtedly there are differences between “male” and “female”, but how these differences are expressed is societally constructed and changes remarkably throughout history and between cultures. What happens to the sensitive side of “tough, rowdy, bruiser” boys in our society, and how about the aggressive or assertive parts of our “sensitive, beautiful princesses”?
We can all be restricted by the gender norms we are ascribed, however, those of us who are born gender diverse generally have a particularly hard road to travel, due to societal expectations that our gender expression/identity will match our genitals. The majority of the time, this is exactly what happens, but a significant minority of people simply do not feel that their body matches their inner experience of who they truly are. We all have a role in making the road these children travel much less hazardous, and by contributing to a society that is less rigid in gender expectations, we may all benefit by being free to be who we truly are, not only what we are expected to be.
Gender diversity can be defined as a spectrum of behaviours, expressions, identities and feelings which society deems as atypical of a person’s biological gender. It is useful to think of gender diversity as a spectrum, rather than simply categories of “male” and “female”, because people can feel somewhere “in between”. Gender diversity may be experienced at any point in life, and people will either express or suppress this diversity, largely in response to how safe and accepting their social world is or is not.
A core concept to keep in mind is that gender diversity is not the problem, it is a natural reflection of the complexity and variety of human experience. Issues arise due to how an individual that is gender diverse is stigmatised, isolated, pressured and even persecuted by the world around them. This is what must be changed for all people in a society to live safe, fulfilling lives.
When gender diversity is present in childhood, it is useful to consider developmental stages to guide how best to support the child. Up until the age of three, young children have no fixed gender identity. Their understanding of other people’s gender is also fluid. This period of life should be approached with a high degree of acceptance of fluidity and experimentation.
When children up to the age of three behave in ways atypical of their biological gender, it is simply a reflection of their lack of categorisation, it is play, fun, learning and experimentation. Parents and other carers can join in with this play and show pleasure at their child’s exploration. The worst thing to do would be to force gendered behaviour, as this will not make sense to young children and runs the risk of causing shame and confusion. From the age of two to three-and-a-half, children are particularly susceptible to feelings of shame and doubt, which they can be assisted through supporting their growing independence in play, experimentation and undertaking simple tasks. This way of supporting them can be applied to any and all expressions of gender. It is not important as to whether it is typical of their biological gender or not, just that they are encouraged and supported.
“We all have a role in making the road these children travel much less hazardous, and by contributing to a society that is less rigid in gender expectations”.
After the age of three and up to the ages of five to six, children are starting to work out some of the differences related to biological gender and may become very curious about body parts and functions. However, even up to the age of six, some level of fluidity, or errors in terminology are common in relation to gender.
Answering questions about bodies and gender openly, focused on the question of the child, rather than adding information that may be beyond their understanding, assists children to learn about gender and bodies at their own pace.
Continuing to be accepting of fluid concepts of gender, rather than asserting norms, will also provide space for children to develop their own gender identity, while maintaining healthy self-esteem. For children in this developmental stage, there are big transitions to navigate, such as beginning pre-school and primary school.
If your child is presenting with signs of gender diversity, and especially if they show signs of distress at any pressure to conform to gender norms, it is very important to consult with others involved in your child’s education and care. It is advisable to ask what their approach to gender diversity is and to ask for changes to be made that will assist your child in these big developmental transitions. Some of the policies schools and child-care centres have created include gender neutral toilets, gender neutral approach to toys/play, support for clothing preference of children, use of pronouns/names that children choose and strong anti-bullying programmes which include a focus on acceptance of gender diversity. The goal of these policies and changes in both primary and secondary schools is to allow gender diverse children the space, safety and support to work out who they are in relation to gender, throughout a period of life which is characterised by fluidity.
In later childhood and pre-adolescence, children are well aware of gender categories, differences and norms. For those who are gender diverse, the awareness of being different is likely to become more pronounced. Support is required within the home, schools and other settings such as sporting teams to ensure that differences and diversity are accepted and ideally celebrated, rather than targeted as a source of shame.
Older children can be assisted to find settings and friendships where they feel they fit in, and to consider their capacity to adjust behaviours and interactions in ways that result in positive interpersonal experiences. It is important to only encourage kids to adjust their own behaviours and choices in ways that are affirming and authentic to them. Placing pressure on a gender diverse child to “fit in” and adopt societal norms, rather than focussing on adjusting social settings to be safe and accepting, is unfair and ultimately damaging to children’s development, well-being and self-esteem.
“If your child is presenting with signs of gender diversity, it is very important to consult with others involved in your child’s education and care”.
Adolescence can be a particularly difficult time for gender diverse people. The hormonal and physical changes associated with puberty, along with the complex developmental task of developing a stronger sense of self, is often fraught for many. Imagine how much more difficult this period would be if your body and its biological sexual characteristics were developing in a way which was severely contradicting your inner sense of self.
Gender diverse adolescents may become distressed at these changes and develop a sense of alienation, ambivalence or revulsion toward various aspects of their bodies and ways that society perceive them and pressure them to be. Unfortunately, gender diverse adolescents are at higher risk of mental health issues, risk-taking behaviours and suicidality. They can be protected if they receive strong family and social support which affirms their inner gender identity, and access to medical and psychological services.
A medical intervention for gender diverse adolescents which is becoming much more accepted is to commence “puberty blockers”. This hormonally halts the onset or progress of puberty, giving the gender diverse adolescent respite from distress related to unwanted bodily changes, and an opportunity to decide later whether they wish to start taking hormones of their affirmed gender, or stop taking puberty blockers and commence the process of maturation in their biological gender. Puberty blockers are safe and their effects are reversible, which is important in giving the young person time to decide what is best for them.
Adolescence is a time of experimentation and identity formation, and gender identity will play a part in this process for all teenagers, but for those who are gender diverse and experiencing distress, more support is required.
Longitudinal research into gender diverse children indicate that there are three main outcomes. A portion of gender diverse children will integrate their own sense of gender and be comfortable to identify as their biological gender. Others seem more likely to identify as diverse in sexuality later in life. Meanwhile, those who experience persistent gender diversity may go on to “transition”, which means taking hormones and sometimes undergoing surgeries to ensure their physical body matches their inner gender identity. This transition process is not the same for all, and it is important to consider gender identities other than the binary opposites of “male” and “female”, as this does not always represent an individual’s personal experience of gender.
Whatever pathway a gender diverse child takes into adulthood, the irrefutable fact is that they will be more happy, healthy and self-assured if we as parents, families and a society offer support, acceptance and love, which often means challenging rigid norms of behaviour that restrict us all.