On Wednesday,we talked about gender identity, and at what age children begin to understand the difference between being a boy or a girl. We also covered children who may not fit the stereotypical gender role.An example would be little girls who love to play with trucks and climb trees, or young boys who might prefer reading instead of playing sports. These children may not feel comfortable with traditional gender role-playing activities, but that in itself, does not mean they are confused about their sexual identity.
Gender confusion is more complicated. More than just lacking an interest in sports, for instance, some boys actually tend to identify with females. Likewise, some girls identify more with masculine traits. Conflicted about their gender, they may deny their sexuality. Rather than learn to accept themselves, they may come to dislike that part of themselves that is a boy or a girl.
At the extreme, a boy may seem more effeminate and have one or more of the following characteristics:
• He wants to be a girl.
• He desires to grow up to be a woman.
• He has a marked interest in female activities, including playing with dolls or playing the roles of girls or women.
• He has an intense interest in cosmetics, jewelry, or girls’ clothes and enjoys dressing up in girls’ apparel.
• His favorite friends are girls.
• On rare occasions, he may cross-dress and actually consider himself to be a girl.
An effeminate boy is sometimes ridiculed, teased as being “gay,” and shunned by his peer group. This rejection may intensify, as the boy gets older. As a result, he may become anxious, insecure, or depressed and struggle with self-esteem and social relationships.
On the other hand, girls who identify with boys are thought of as “tomboys.” They usually encounter less social ridicule and peer difficulties than effeminate boys do. For many girls, some tomboy-ness seems to be a very natural course toward healthy adolescent gender identity. Yet there are rare girls who exhibit one or more of the following traits:
• They express a wish to be a boy.
• Their preferred peer group is male.
• When playing make-believe games, they prefer male roles over female ones.
These traits suggest a conflict or confusion about gender and relationship with peers of the same sex. The possible causes of these variations are speculative and controversial. Research demonstrates a role for both biological factors and social learning in gender-identity confusion.
What Should You Do?
If you notice the above traits in your child, it’s normal to worry about your child’s happiness and their ability to fit in with society’s rules and roles. That’s what parents do. But, over-reacting or trying to force your child to change who they are, often brings about only more confusion and sadness.
If your middle-years child seems to have distortions and confusions in gender identity, discuss boy and girl, male and female behavior directly with him or her. For instance, talk with your child about the specific gestures or behavior that may provoke reactions from others, and identify together some that might be more appropriate. Through a sensitive dialogue, you might be able to help your child better understand his or her behavior and why it gets the responses it does from peers. Providing a lot of support for your child can bolster his or her self-esteem and counteract the social and peer pressures he or she might be facing.
In addition to your own efforts, talk with your pediatrician, who may suggest that you consult a child psychiatrist or child psychologist to help overcome the youngster’s confusion and conflict.
Sexual orientation cannot be changed. A child’s heterosexuality or homosexuality is deeply ingrained as part of them. As a parent, your most important role is to offer understanding, respect, and support to your child. A non-judge-mental approach will gain your child’s trust and put you in a better position to help him or her through difficult times.