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Kids and Gender Identity Exploration

kids and gender identity exploration

Both in my office and in my real life (the one where I’m not wearing my therapist hat) I am meeting more and more kids and teens who identify as transgender, gender variant or gender queer. And I am also talking to more and more worried parents who are trying to make sense of this. They want to know, how do I support my child? Is this a real thing or just a phase? What do I do next?

First let’s talk some about the language. It’s important to know that the language around gender identity issues is changing quickly and language that one person uses may be offensive to another person. I am using the language suggested in this infographic created by the TSER (Trans Student Education Resources). Their organization defines transgender as an umbrella term that includes anyone whose gender identity is different than the gender assigned to them at birth. This would include a child designated “boy” at birth who identifies as a girl as well as a child designated “boy” at birth that does not identify as any gender (agender) or whose gender identity varies (often referred to as gender variant or gender queer).

Gender is culturally defined. What it means to be a boy or to be a girl depends on where, when and how you live. In India, straight men hold hands. Here in the states, not so much. So something that we know to be “true” about masculinity — that straight men do not hold hands with each other — is not actually true; it’s a gender performance that differs depending on one’s cultural surroundings.

Our gender performance is just that — performance. We are taught gender norms before birth (is it a girl or a boy?) and within the context of those teachings we learn how to perform gender. We learn who wears make up and who cooks dinner and who shaves their legs and who is loud or quiet and who is allowed to take up the most room on the subway.

Discussing gender performance can be challenging for people who believe that girls are naturally this way and boys are naturally that way. Many of us also have experience that tells us that boys really are louder or dirtier or rougher than their sisters. I would argue that whether or not we can prove this is unimportant. We can acknowledge the rough and tumble 5-year old boy in front of us, seeing the truth of his expression and we can also know that “boys will be boys” is a cultural norm that can be freeing (for the boy who wants to be rough and tumble) or stultifying (for the boy who does not). We can recognize both the personal experience and the cultural construct that surrounds it.

To be clear, understanding cultural norms around gender doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge that people we’ve identified as boys and girls may be different; it means acknowledging that how we understand, code and define these identities and these differences is complicated and dependent on social values and mores.

Children generally become aware of gender roles between two and four. When I taught preschool I had short hair and many of the kids in my care would ask me if I was a boy because of it. Children who are trans may start speaking up around now — Johnny declares he is a girl. Louisa declares she is a boy. Some of this may be about trying on gender roles, for example some kids realize that the opposite gender has access to gender performance that they want, like a boy who wants to be Cinderella or a girl who wants to be G.I. Joe. This may not indicate that they are transgender; lots of little kids figure things out by trying on different identities.

These conversations tend to come up again in the tween and teen years. As kids become more aware of the demands and expectations of gender performance — particularly as they head into their teens and adulthood — they may question them or feel critical of them. Children who are transgender and who are likely going to live out their lives under that umbrella have a “consistent, insistent, and persistent” identity with a gender that was not assigned to them at birth. This means the child identified as a boy at birth will always know she was meant to be a girl or the child identified as girl at birth will always know they are gender queer.

So what about the child who does not show consistence, insistence and persistence? What about the child identified at birth as a girl who wore tutus all through preschool, dresses all through early elementary and who now only shops at the boy department and insists that you call them Jack? Is that just a phase? Should the parents be alarmed?

Let me be clear that this blog post is meant to support all three — the transgender child, the gender variant child and the child who ultimately will align as cisgender but who is exploring. There’s something happening — I call it the Tumblrfication of this generation — where our kids are having more complicated and more nuanced discussions about gender than their parents’ generation (i.e., us) could ever hope to have.

Let’s go back to Jack, the child identified as a girl at birth who announces he is a gay boy (i.e., a boy who likes other boys). Wait a second, says the parents. Doesn’t that mean you’re a girl? Or a tomboy?

Or Jack says he is a straight boy (i.e., a boy who likes girls). Wait a second, says the parents. Doesn’t that mean you’re a lesbian?

Here’s the thing, Jack gets to decide who Jack is. And who Jack is may change. Jack may go back to be Jeannie. Jack may even go back to Jeannie and marry a man and live out life ostensibly as a straight woman some day. But what does that mean for Jack right this minute, 13-years old and standing in front of you in skinny jeans and a beanie and a buzzcut?

It means right now, right this minute, Jack is Jack.

There’s a great podcast about asexuality that you can find here. Asexuality is just what it sounds like — it’s people whose sexual orientation is to not be sexual. (Learn more about it here or listen to the podcast.) In the podcast there’s a part where the interviewer asks (and I’m going to paraphrase here because I don’t have time to boot up the podcast and find it), so what happens to your identity if you do become sexual? What if you meet someone and realize you want to be sexual with them? And the interviewee says, basically, Who I may become does not negate who I am now.

For parents, this is an important message. Who our child is right this very minute is what matters. Helping them make sense of it and supporting them as they forge their identity is our job. We can’t look into a crystal ball and know if Jeannie will stay Jack or become Jeannie again. We might make educated guesses (again, consistence, insistence and persistence are our guides here) but how incredibly disrespectful to Jack’s journey to insist we know him better than he knows himself.

For one, we might be unaware of Jack’s consistence because we shut down his insistence. Perhaps Jack knew early on but realized the first time he said, “I’m a boy” at three that this wasn’t going to fly. Maybe Jack’s coming out now is part of a long persistent journey.

Or maybe Jack didn’t have the language to explain what they meant. Perhaps Jack didn’t know how to display their gender variance, to say they didn’t feel like a boy OR a girl or felt like both a boy AND a girl.

Or maybe Jack is playing with gender, unpacking gender. Perhaps Jack is exploring the cultural performance and will come back to her identity as Jeannie with a new understanding of who she is and who she can be. And this is just as valid an experience even if it seems “temporary” when her identity eventually aligns back with her gender assigned with birth.

I see all kinds of experiences in my office but I guarantee that the number of non-binary kids I see — and that other counselors are seeing — have increased in this generation. This is the part that I call the Tumblrfication because yes, there are kids who would never identify as trans in any way, shape, or form in another time and place who are identifying now because they’ve read about it on Tumblr or saw it on Mtv or have friends who are genderqueer. Instead of calling it a phase or being dismissive, I think we need to recognize this as the cultural change that it is. Kids today (not all but many) are willing to dialogue with and about gender in ways that are not familiar to those of us who were raised to only recognize the binary. Many of us may find this threatening. What does it mean to be male if you can be a man without having a penis? How do we know who is “really” a girl and who isn’t?

This is why I encourage parents to get support along with their kids. When our children unpack gender, we’re forced to unpack it, too, and confront the biases, assumptions and prejudices that we took for granted as “true.”

When I’m working with kids who are identifying in some way as trans or genderqueer, my goal is not to herd them towards a definitive statement of gender identity. My goal is to help them understand who they are and what they need in order to align their outward experience with their inward experience. Unless a child is going to be seeking hormonal support to support their gender identity, there’s no rush. (And if in the course of treatment it becomes clear that a child/teen is going to need hormones, then I will refer out to a therapist with expertise in transition since this is beyond my scope of practice.) I ask parents to do this, too. Instead of saying, “Who are you? What are you?” I encourage parents to say, “How can I support you as you discover who you are?”

If your child tells you that they are transgender or genderqueer, believe them. Right in this minute this is how they identify. Some of them will find a home in that identity and will need to craft a support system that celebrates and honors who they are. Some of them will move through that identity on to something else and they deserve our support and understanding, too.

All of us have to make that journey. All of us need to know who we will be in the context of our whole lives — within and beyond our families, within and beyond our cultural surroundings. We have to make sense of it. We have to forge a way to learn it since, for most of us, crafting our identity is a lifelong discovery. (I am an adult, I am a parent, I am a parent no longer raising children — who am I now? I am a partner, I am a spouse, I am alone — who am I now?)

  • Here in Columbus we have a great organization to help your child find respectful support. Kaleidoscope Youth Center has support groups and activities for kids and young adults from 12 to 20
  • We also have a support group for kids 5 to 11 hosted by therapist Erin Upchurch that meets monthly. You can learn more about that (along with support groups across the country) here.

I have written this post in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, which you can learn more about here.

Somatic Symptoms of Child Anxiety

Somatic Symptoms of Child AnxietyLast night for the Parenting Kids with Anxiety group we discussed the way anxiety can affect our kids’ bodies.

Somatic symptoms are often mistaken for something else, which can get in the way of getting appropriate help.

The most common somatic symptoms of child anxiety are these:

  • Restlessness (inability to sit still, fidgeting with clothes or objects, chewing on fingernails, etc.)
  • Stomach problems (butterflies, pain, nausea, a need to go to the bathroom)
  • Blushing
  • Heart palpitations (also panting, wheezing)
  • Muscle tension (headaches, other aches & pains)
  • Sweating
  • Shaking

Behavior problems are common in anxious kids for several reasons including the somatic symptoms. Kids who are too tense and fidgety to sit still may be reprimanded in school, which may increase their anxiety. Anxiety is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD because it can make it so hard for kids to focus. However children with ADD/ADHD can also have anxiety and it may be missed because observers assume it’s part of the child’s attention problems.

Kids who are anxious may act irritable, mouthy, weepy and generally difficult. Part of this has to do with the somatic response; most of us act yucky when we feel yucky.

The physical symptoms of anxiety are real — they’re part of the Fight/Flight/Freeze fear reaction. In other words kids aren’t making them up or making themselves sick to get out of the things that make them anxious.

When we are afraid, our bodies go into protective mode. Our muscles get tight so that we’re ready to react. Our adrenaline kicks up, which makes us get sweaty and makes our heart and breathing come faster. The cascade of chemical reactions in our bodies can also wreak havoc on our tummies. This physical response not only prepares us to stay safe, it also tells us that we need to be afraid. In other words, anxiety happens on a self-perpetuating loop.

Imagine a 9-year old who wakes up worried about a report she has to give later that day in front of her class. As she’s getting dressed, thinking about the report, her stomach starts to hurt. She heads down to the kitchen only to find that she can’t eat breakfast. She starts to worry about throwing up in front of the whole class and this makes her stomach hurt even more. She can’t stop picturing how awful it will be to humiliate herself and she finds herself worrying even more about the report she spent all last evening getting just right. Her thoughts are worried. Her emotions are worried. Her body is worried, too.

As parents we need to help our kids spot the loop and interrupt it. This takes practice and attention.

For somatic symptoms, parents can help their children identify their physical response to anxiety. In the kids’ groups we’ve taken outlines (like Gingerbread Men) and drawn in where we feel our worries. Kids are often surprised and relieved to find out that symptoms like sweaty hands or shakiness are common. Knowing what’s happening can help children feel more in control of their anxiety response.

Interrupting the physical part of the anxiety loop means addressing the physical symptoms. Deep breathing, hugs, rocking, and taking a time-out can all help children get their bodies and minds calm. Taking a cool drink of water or splashing cold water on one’s face or wrists can help decrease sweaty symptoms or decrease blushing.

I also really like a set of muscle relaxation exercises created for children with autism who need to prepare for blood draws. They’re simple and easy to remember even for very young children. Some of them are unobtrusive enough that kids can do them under their desks at school or in the car before heading off to an event. You can find them in this PDF, Taking the Work Out of Blood Work, on pages 11 to 13.

The exercises take practice to get good at them and parents can do them with their kids before bed since that’s a great time to practice getting calm. That way when children do start to feel anxious, they’ll be prepared with familiar exercises they already know how to do.

If you’d like to come to the next group, just sign up for an email reminder at the Parenting Kids with Anxiety web page.

Growing Healthy Kids: Voices of Ohio’s Children

Kids Health ConferenceI recently got word that my proposal for the 2015 Kids Health Conference for Voices of Ohio’s Children was accepted. My session, Growing Healthy Kids: Looking Beyond Weight as a Measure of Health, will share research about supporting kids’ health without relying on anti-obesity rhetoric. I will share the recent research about what we know about kids, weight, and health along with ways families can support kids in both their physical and mental health.

This is a hard sell for a lot of people who believe that obesity is the enemy and that kids need to be protected from that enemy at all costs. The problem is that the “obesity epidemic” is a lot more complicated and recent research shows that our well-intentioned efforts may be doing more harm than good.

Some of you may have read the article I wrote about this a few years back (you can find it here: Weighing Down Our Children) and I’ll be sharing some of that info but updated and with more information about things we can do to help our kids be healthy without demonizing differently sized bodies.

The conference is May 6th and 7th and my session is on the second day. The conference will take place at The Westin Columbus and there are CEUs available for social workers (but not counselors — frustrating! maybe that’ll change).

You can register by going here.

I may offer the same workshop in my office at some point so let me know if you might be interested. (You can contact me here.)

Is it all my fault?

Is it all my fault?It’s the therapy stereotype, right? It’s always your mother’s fault! No wonder then that many of the parents I see come in feeling defensive or feeling guilty.

“Did I do something wrong?” they ask me. “Did I create these issues? Is it all my fault?”

My answer to this is probably going to feel frustrating: I don’t know and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.

Here’s the deal: different kids need different kinds of parents and sometimes those different kids live in the same family, which means the fool proof technique you had for dealing with one child’s tantrums is not necessarily going to work with dealing with the next child’s tantrums. In fact, it might make things worse. Remember there is no one size fits all parenting.

Let’s take childhood anxiety. Anxiety has at its core a whole lot of nature and a healthy dose of nurture. Parents with anxious temperaments often give birth to children with anxious temperaments. That’s not anyone’s fault; that’s genetics. Also parents who deal with the world in an anxious way inadvertently model that anxious way of dealing with the world for their children. That’s nobody’s fault either anymore than the way parents who read a lot tend to have kids who read a lot. Modeling is powerful.

That said, once the family realizes that their child is struggling with anxiety there is an opportunity to explore the way that parenting choices may be influencing that struggle.

Let me give you an example. Consider bedtime routines. Any parenting expert type out there will tell you that bedtime routines are terrific, right? Do a quick google and you have people promising you that having a routine will make your evenings “battle-free” and “sleep-inducing.” And I agree — having a predictable routine before bed is great sleep hygiene. But if you have a child with an anxiety disorder then that friendly little routine can become a prison where mom or dad has to stand in the doorway and say “Good night” exactly this way with exactly that inflection or the whole routine has to start over again.

Then it may be that changing the parent’s behavior is part of what needs to happen next — the solution may lie in part in the parent’s actions — but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s all the mom and dad’s fault for creating a bedtime routine in the first place.

When my son was small I used to fantasize about having a Sims-type game where I could program all of my son’s characteristics into the computer and try out different parenting choices to see which would be the best one. Like, this Sim-baby I could send to preschool and that one I could keep home. This one I could be really stern with and that one I could lean more towards permissive. At the end of the game I’d know exactly the right way to raise my actual baby here in front of me.

Unfortunately we don’t have that. Instead we have a lot of advice and a lot of research, (which is helpful but not definitive) and a lot of books and neighbors and teachers and therapists and then we have our own hopes and dreams and histories and expectations. Then throw in kids with wildly different temperaments, abilities, interests, talents and challenges and well, we end up with a whole mess of confusion.

In short, we’re going to do some things right and we’re going to do some things wrong. Sometimes the wrongs are no big deal and sometimes we’re going to have to course correct. Sometimes a bedtime routine is awesome and sometimes it’s ripe with dysfunction for no other reason than there’s a perfect storm of this parent, this technique and this child and it’s not working.

(This is also why none of us should ever be smug with each other. Show me a parent who has a child who is a shining beacon of perfection and I’ll show you a parent who got lucky. In parenting, like in all things, some of us have it easier than others just because.)

So if you come to me and say, “Is this all my fault?” I’m going to say that I think you’re asking the wrong question. I’m going to encourage you to say, instead, “What can we do now to help things be better?”

Letting your child have the last word

mouthytween-insideSometimes when you’ve won an argument you can help the person who lost save face by letting them get the last word in. I think this can be particularly helpful with kids.

You can help move things along by letting a kid stomp away mumbling. This seems counterintuitive and I know it’s tempting to holler, “What’s that? Who do you think is such a mean mom? Get back here, young lady!” but don’t give into it. If you pull them back, “What was that you said?” you’ve entered into a power struggle. Power struggles are tar pits; do not get stuck in them.

You can pretend not to hear it even if you do, which is going to help things get back to normal more quickly than if you bring them back in to escalate the argument.

We want our children to be respectful and for some families that makes it very hard to let someone grouch off to her chores muttering under her breath. But here’s the thing, if you let her do it, if you let her turn away and get a dig in that’s meant to be just loud enough for you to hear, you’re actually coming out ahead because you’re saying, “I am big enough to withstand and allow your muttering.”

Same thing with slammed doors.

Same thing with eye rolling.

Same thing with “whatever” under her breath.

You can address the things that are truly out of line in your family later (maybe in your family slamming a door is against the rules or maybe it isn’t, remember there is no one-size-fits-all parenting). You can address it when people are calmed down because it’s easier to work out one conflict at a time.

Make your point, let them mutter or stomp or slam. Once everyone is back to an even keel then bring it up, “Hey, when I talked to you about those chores and you rolled your eyes while I was talking, that upset me. In this family we show each other respect even when angry.”

One conflict at a time. Chores or eye rolling, not both at the same time. Otherwise you’re in the tar pit, mucking around in an argument you never intended to have and the chores still aren’t done. Which may be the very reason they’re doing all of that eye rolling.

(I have one child who is a master at this deflection. I say, “Pick up your socks” and that child stomps, arms crossed, pouts and says, “Why do you hate me” and I say, “I don’t hate you” and that child says, “You are so mean!” and I say, “I am not mean!” and it’s three hours later and there are still socks all over the house.)

So how could you respond?

You: “Please clean your room.”

Him: [sigh] “Ok, mother.” [eye rolling as he turns away]

You: “Thanks. I appreciate your help.”

You: “I said no PS3 tonight and I mean it.”

Her: [stomp] “You are so unfair!” [storm away, door slammed]

You: [nothing because you made your point]

You: “Please go change your shirt before we go out to dinner.”

Him: “This shirt is fine! I’m just going to get it dirty again anyway!” [turning away to go change, muttering, “Like your clothes are so awesome!”]

You: [nothing because you made your point]

You: “I said the trash needs to go out and it needs to go out NOW.”

Her: “It’s not like you make anyone else take out the trash! You pick on me! Why are you so unfair?” [as she storms off with the trash bag]

You: [nothing because you made your point]

If they still try to draw you in, stay one-note and stay calm, “I’m not talking about whether or not I’m unfair, I’m telling you to turn off the PS3.” “I’m not discussing standards of cleanliness right now, I’m telling you to change your shirt.” “We can discuss chore assignments later. Right now it’s time for you to take out the trash.”

Sometimes it helps to turn away physically to indicate the conversation is over. This shows that you’re confident. Resist the urge to keep an eye on them. Resist the urge to end any directions with, “OK?” As in, “Please go change your shirt before we go out to dinner, OK?” You’re just giving them permission to tell you how not OK they are with your instructions. Unless you’re really interested in their opinion, don’t ask for it.

Then let them mumble, mutter, stomp or storm away from you.

I’m not saying that ignoring a bad attitude is always the way to do things or the only way to do things but if you catch yourself getting stuck in arguments you never meant to have, try it — bite your tongue, sit on your hands, exchange meaningful angry glances with your partner but stay quiet — and see what happens.

 

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