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Children Defying Gender Norms

Updated: Oct 30, 2018

by Amy L. Ver Wey, MA

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. – E.E. Cummings

Gender identity has increasingly become a topic of considerable discussion, particularly gender-variant children. Whether through exploration with style of play, various personal expression patterns or gender related questions to a parent or caregiver, many children are continuing to explore, wonder and find creative ways to give a voice to their gender inquiries. There has been a significant increase in families seeking mental health services regarding gender identity. There has also been a dramatic shift in the understanding of gender, which has given more of a voice to children. These children are not seeking answers for any reason other than to allow themselves to be the gender they know themselves to be, rather than the gender others perceive them to be.

Regardless of the eventual gender outcome, the mental well-being and overall health of a gender-variant child relies heavily on receiving support, empathy and open-mindedness from parents and caregivers. While their child might experience a passive or adamant disapproval, a parent or caregiver cannot control nor always know the actual inner experience of their child. If the child hears messages of rejection from caregivers, the child’s gender identity may become internalized with shame and manifest as increased struggles with mental health issues. While some parents may struggle with this, a positive sense of self requires healthy support and validation. This challenge is completely valid. Questioning and exploring gender identity is a tough journey for the child as well as the parents and caregivers. However, it can also be a chance for children and parents to grow together. It is nearly impossible to speculate how a child will feel in relation to gender at any point in time from here on out, but they will thrive through that journey if they have the support and love of their parents and caregivers.

A mental health therapist can assist in that journey of exploration with the child and family through a gender affirmative approach. This therapeutic approach affirms that gender variance is an indication of health, not illness or a need to “fix” gender. By providing a safe space for children to continue exploring and creating their authentic selves, therapists can help build strength and resiliency that will allow the child and family to face situations where their authentic selves may not readily be accepted and celebrated. Through therapy techniques involving play, art, and listening, a skilled clinician can help the child discover their authentic self, regardless of who that may be.

Barron, C., & Capous-Desyllas, M. (2017). Transgressing the gendered norms in childhood: Understanding transgender children and their families. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 13(5), 407-438.

Brill, S., & Pepper, R. (2008). The transgender child: A handbook for families and professionals. Cleis Press.

Ehrensaft, D. (2014). Found in transition: Our littlest transgender people. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 50(4), 571-592.

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