Is Your Child Questioning Their Gender Identity? Parents Should 'Really Listen,' One Psychologist SaysPlay
How early can a child know that their gender is not what they've been assigned at birth?
Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental and clinical psychologist, says children as young as 3 years old can know. Compared to adults, children have a “much more expanded view of gender than we do," she says.
For parents struggling with what to do when their child comes to them with questions about gender identity, Ehrensaft says the first step is to pay attention to what they have to say.
“That child was trying to tell us something very profound about who they're discovering they are, and how it doesn't work when people treat them as the person that they know they're not,” she says.
Ehrensaft acknowledges that from a parent’s perspective, these conversations can be difficult. That’s why listening carefully is crucial.
“I think we do a disservice when we assume the parents take a child at their word and the next day say, ‘OK all done,’” she says. “It's a journey. It's not a point in time.”
Parents should avoid using the word “phase” to describe your child’s gender creativity, because it suggests they’ll eventually grow out of it, Ehrensaft says. Instead, look for signs from your child being “insistent, persistent and consistent” about their gender.
This process might be a learning curve for some parents at first, she says, but to remember that for all humans, gender identity and expression is “a lifelong journey.”
On listening to your children’s gender identity questions
“Our job is to really listen to the children and if they are trying to tell us something very important about their gender like, 'Hey, you all got it wrong. This doesn't fit for me.' The important thing is to take it seriously and then to find out what it means. And if it does mean that we all got it wrong and this child is not the gender who everybody thought they were, then we need to think seriously about doing something for that child. That child isn't saying, 'I'm making a choice.' That child was trying to tell us something very profound about who they're discovering they are and how it doesn't work when people treat them as the person that they know they're not.”
On having these conversations as a parent
“I would absolutely agree that from a parent's perspective, this is not a walk in the park. Because we don't live in a world that is yet accepting as it should be for people of all genders. And we're working on that to make it better and also because there's a learning curve here. Most of us never learn that the gender you are isn't necessarily what's designated on your birth certificate as ‘F’ or ‘M.’ So we have to develop what we call 'gender literacy' to find out, what does that mean?”
"We lifted the lid to allow the kids to come out from under the rocks and really begin to speak up about who they are.”Dr. Diane Ehrensaft
On how common it is for a child as young as 3 years old to verbally express that their gender is different than they thought it was before
“It is happening all the time. Why? Not because there's something new in the drinking water. We lifted the lid to allow the kids to come out from under the rocks and really begin to speak up about who they are.”
On whether gender identity and sexual orientation go hand in hand
“First of all, your sexual identity has nothing to do with your gender development. Yes, some people may go through different iterations about doing their gender in one way or another, and we want to give that time to unfold. But there's another group of people saying, ‘I do know from both my brain [and] my mind,’ and kids often say ‘in my heart,’ about ‘who I am’ and that's called your gender identity. And that can happen at a very young age.
“I will say I'm trained as a developmental psychologist. When I went to school, what I learned is that a young child by age 3 should know. And by six, should be really sure about it. So what I ask is, how is that OK just for some children where the gender they know themselves to be matches the sex designated at their birth. And then the other kids, where they say it's different, why can't they know too? Isn't that a double standard? That one group of kids can know that the other kids could never know or have the authority to know.”
On whether your child questioning their gender identity is a phase
“It's very interesting you ask the question about phases. When I trained pediatricians because they're often the first point person with a little child in a family where the child is trying to say something about their gender. And I have counseled pediatricians to get rid of the word 'phase' because we're hoping they'll grow out of it like terrible twos. That's a very negative attitude towards a child who is trying to say, 'I'm gender diverse, gender expansive or gender creative.'
"And so what we're looking for is not whether it's a phase or not a phase. but is there something that we call insistent, persistent and consistent? And a little child or an older youth telling us the same message over and over about the gender. Are they telling us, 'I'm not the gender you think I am' or they're simply telling us, like in the example of being a tomboy, 'For the time being, I don't like rules about how to do gender so I don't want to dress that way. I don't want to wear my hair that way.' And those two things also have to be separated.”
On whether kids’ gender identities are influenced by society
“... What we have is both a mirror and a feedback loop that goes like this. Children can now know what's going on inside them because somebody outside them is providing them with some mirrors where they can find themselves. And the mirrors are these new understandings of gender and many hues and there's not just two that resonates to their experience. The feedback loop is then they feed back into our cultural understandings of gender.”
Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
This segment aired on August 28, 2019.