Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our second child has expressed a preference to be referred to as “them” lately, giving themselves a new first name. Naturally this is a tough adjustment for Dad and me, but I’m doing my best to be supportive.
Dad, on the other hand, would rather not talk about it. Before the pandemic hit, I went to one PFLAG meeting, but the discussion seemed to be focused on preventing suicide. Yikes!
The pandemic has put most social interactions on hold for us adults, particularly in-person contact with friends, extended family, school connections, and workmates, as well as for the kids. It feels like we’ve been granted a grace period to work through this transition at home before sharing with the wider world. Any advice would be appreciated.
Always Their Mom
Gender identity is undergoing a change in our society, though not fast enough for individuals and families in your situation.
Boy or Girl?
Once upon a time, society stressed the importance of helping children identify as boys or girls, including fostering images of growing up to be a man or a woman. Boys who didn’t play army, slug baseballs, and boast about skinned knees were labeled as sissies. Likewise girls who enjoyed these experiences earned the less demoralizing label of tomboy. Learning to cook, clean house, and care for children used to be the most important lessons for little girls.
Strict codes for male and female behavior were challenged when the birth control pill became a reliable method to delay or avoid becoming a mother (c. 1959). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, girls increasingly went to college – from 5% of all girls as compared to 15% of all boys in 1950 to an equal 30% of boys and girls by 1990.
Nowadays, it is expected that girls plan for a career and that Dads fully participate in parenting. It is becoming “normal” to see women as engineers and surgeons, and to see men volunteering at their children’s school and at Girl Scout meetings. Non-binary children and non-binary adults may be a very small minority of the general population, estimated as 25% of individuals who identify as LGBTQ + (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Queer / Questioning plus), however they can and should fully participate in family and community life. Although discrimination at school or in the workplace is illegal it takes courage to reveal a non-binary identity.
The use of “she” or “he” for third person singular pronouns is just what you’re used to. It was only in 2015 that the gender-neutral use of “they” was adopted as standard by the Washington Post to refer to a non-binary individual. (Actually, people have been using “they” when gender is unknown or is unimportant for a very long time!) Also in 2015, “they” was declared the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, which recently added “(my) pronouns” as the phrase of the decade. You may have noticed that pronoun declarations are cropping up on letterheads and business cards.
Spanish speakers have started to use the word “Latinx” (pronounced La-teen-ex) for individuals as well as groups of Spanish-speaking people. Formerly it was presumed that “Latino” meant both a group of males and a group of males and females, while Latina referred only to females.
Language is catching up to gender equality and gender neutrality.
Loss and Change
Part of the difficulty for you, and more so it seems for Dad, is to accept your child’s true identity as other than the one you have been responding to since birth. It can feel like the loss of the child you previously knew and loved. This is hard. We often view our child through a lens of timelessness, recalling many past stages and imagining many future stages on any given day. In time, you may review earlier moments when this child’s play, or their comments, or their clothing preferences make more sense for this new identity than the one you assumed fit them just fine. Similarly, the possibilities for their future can begin to take on more appropriate images in your mind. Just as your child boldly shared a revelation about themselves, you are freshly joining in that discovery and finding new eyes with which to see this person. It doesn’t change everything, but there are losses to acknowledge and to adjust to. And wonderful new possibilities to imagine together.
Gender vs. Anatomy
There have always been individuals who do not identify with the traditional stereotypes associated with the sexual anatomy of their bodies. This awareness can come at any age, however, adolescence is a critical time for coming to terms with one’s sexual identity. As a child’s body morphs into its adult form this can be an age of romantic crushes and concerns of sexual attractiveness. For a child such as yours, who is experiencing a disconnect between their body and their true self, this can be a time of crisis. Hence the concern for suicidal thoughts when acceptance and support, whether from peers or family, are not available.
Support should include sessions with a skilled counselor while your child freely lives in their true identity. You, your child, and hopefully their Dad, can explore feelings related to this critical component of identity, while affirming other aspects of identity such as hobbies, friends, career interests, personality traits, and belonging to a loving family. Getting the affirmation that the parents they have will continue to be the parents they need is fundamental for good mental health. A friend, or two or three, who remain faithful can provide proof that they are worthy even beyond their family. If this transition period is satisfying, your child, obviously with the support of their parents, may want to consider physical interventions, such as hormone treatments (generally starting around age 16), as well as making it legal. An increasing number of states allow for an individual to change gender categories on a birth certificate to “X” or other non-binary terms. This can also apply to a driver’s license. Your child could employ civic engagement to add Maryland to the list.
Love Who I Am
The most important support you can give your child is to continue to enjoy and nurture the amazing individual that they are. Support for yourself is also important. Explore the many resources listed on the website of the local Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG – Support for the LGBTQ+ Community, Their Families, Friends, and Allies) to educate yourself and connect with your new parent peer group. You will also find resources for your child.
Be the parent your child needs you to be.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: drdebbiewood.com.
Dr. Wood is conducting an online workshop “Little Kids at Hope” for parents and caregivers of children from birth to age five on Saturday, August 1. Register with Chesapeake Children’s Museum: 410-990-1993 or www.theccm.org.