Understanding gender is constantly evolving, and this can make it very challenging when having no experience with gender-expansive children. Here, we will give you an overview of how to best support your child through dysphoria. A very important step in understanding gender, gender identity and sex are: foremost, be open about your own experience and understanding of gender, sex, and gender identity or expression. The following sections are a guide meant to help you understand the basics of gender to develop a better grasp of your children's gender dysphoria and allow you to support them the best way possible.
Understanding the dimensions of gender
Current generations have a significantly different understanding of gender than previous generations. This is because previous generations were inundated with different gender messages than today. Even if a change is happening, there are few opportunities offered for children to fully understand this significant aspect of life. Basic gender literacy is essential for adults and children to comprehend their own gender identity. For example, most people tend to use sex and gender as interchangeable terms, when in reality they have completely different meanings and are not equivalent.
- Sex refers to the physical differences between people who are female, male, or intersex. It is usually assigned at birth as a physiological characteristic, this includes their genitalia and chromosome composition.
- Gender refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with men or women and the relationship between them. However, several scholars and queer activists explain that these attributes, opportunities, and relationships are socially constructed and are not exclusively binary. Meaning, they are taught and learned through socialization processes, they are context and time-specific related, just like language. Gender is also a person's complex interrelationship between three dimensions: body, identity, and social gender.
At birth, once the sex is assigned, we often presume that the child's gender will be the same. This is the beginning of a common mistake and misinformation:
Gender may begin with the assignment of a child's sex but it does not end there!
Bodies have been mistakenly categorized as binary, female, or male. However, research shows that the categories of male and female are blurred. We know today that not only the X and Y chromosomes, but at least 12 others across the human genome govern sex differentiation, and most importantly, that at least 30 genes are involved in sex development!
Not only male and female bodies are complex, but intersex bodies also demonstrate that sex exists across a continuum of possibilities!
Furthermore, bodies are also constantly gendered in the context of cultural expectations. For example, feminity and masculinity are expected to have certain characteristics or attributes, such as girls having long hair and boys having short hair. These gendered impositions affect how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive and interact with us.
Gender identity is our internal experience and naming of our gender, it can correspond or differ from the sex we were assigned at birth. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, 'most children have a stable sense of their gender identity by age four'. Most people are familiar with the binary gender identities boy and girl (or man and woman) and believe these are the only ones. However, it is known throughout history that many societies have a larger gender spectrum, not limited to two possibilities. Here in particular language plays a major role, through vocabulary, self-expression and other terms. They are very important to communicate a broad range of feelings and experiences. This is crucial when addressing any topic with your child:
How do they describe themselves? How do they feel about their bodies? How do they show up to the world?
This dimension includes gender expression, which is the way we present and communicate our gender to the world. This translates through clothes, toys, hairstyles, pronouns and mannerisms, but also includes how individuals, communities, and society perceive, interacts and shape our gender. Social gender includes gender roles and expectations and how society uses those to try to enforce conformity to current gender norms.
Congruence is the feeling of harmony between those three dimensions of gender.
What is gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is serious psychological distress that results from an incongruence between the child's sex assigned at birth and their gender identity. Not all trans people experience dysphoria, but those who do might experience it at varying levels of intensity, sometimes provoking mental disorders. Dysphoria happens when there is a lack of harmony between body, identity and social gender.
What does gender dysphoria feels like?
It is important to identify and address gender dysphoria, how it feels and how it can manifest in our child. Here are some guiding questions to think about, to ask and explore with your kid at any given moment to understand the relationship they might have to the different gender dimensions:
- What does it feel like in your body?
- What started the feeling?
- Was it having to wear a certain type of clothing that fits your body in a way you do not feel comfortable?
- Did you take a shower or do something where you felt extra uncomfortable with your body?
- Did someone use the wrong name for you or address you in a way that did not feel good to you?
- Do you feel worse with certain people, in specific places, or at certain times of the day?
- What do you notice about your reaction? Do you feel anxious? Angry? Shut down? Overwhelmed? Hyper?
One of the hardest things about gender dysphoria is that it can be really difficult for your child to identify and to explain it to you or to other people. It becomes even more difficult because it varies from person to person, in different situation and sometimes even at different times of the day.
Gender dysphoria may happen when kids are very young, thus, it is essential to constantly check in with your children about however they feel about their body, identity and social gender. Ask in different environments, at home, at school in public spaces. This is even more important during pre-teens and puberty years because the body will endure significant changes that might affect how kids perceive and feel their different gender dimensions.
Choosing Professional Advice
If your family find itself in a situation where one of your kids suffers from gender dysphoria, and you feel overwhelmed, it is valid to seek a therapist and professional support to assist you and your children in their possible transition or gender-expansive experience.
Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness that needs to be treated.
If your child is not depressed, anxious or show any other sign of mental or physical distress, you might not necessarily need a therapist. On the other hand, if you have determined with your child that professional help and support is needed, especially if your child identifies as transgender and has decided to transition to change their bodies to match their gender identity. It is crucial to find a professional who will be appropriate for the needs of the child and family, in case there is a treatment involved. Choosing mental and medical professionals who understand and specialize in gender and children can prove difficult. Many physicians are intimidated by this relatively new practice or disagree with treating transgender children or gender-expansive teenagers. If you require referrals for medical, mental health, legal or educational support, there is plenty of information available online. Especially in official organizations websites, search thoroughly for different resources until you find what suits best the issues you want to address in therapy with your children.
Rememeber to keep ongoing monitoring of the therapy relationship is essential. Keep the lines of communication always open between you, your child, as well as between you and the therapist.
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