Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Gender Identity: Transgender Parenting and Child Development

The parent and child relationship is likely the most powerful relationship each person has ever experienced. From day one, there are challenges, struggles and rewards like in no other relationship. The relationship provides the foundation for one’s ability to communicate - to listen and to be heard. It creates one’s ability to love and be loved and to experience conflict or disagreement but then to heal and reconcile. The parent/child relationship provides life’s sustenance, which results in one’s confidence that their environment will provide for basic needs (food, shelter, creative and intellectual stimulation). Ideally, the relationship develops one’s capacity for confidence in both his or her own identity as well as trust in the stability (the extension of identity - availability, presence, existence) of an available parent. Every parent/child pairing also has its conflicts and challenges. It is the continuity of love and care from parent to child that provides the rich foundational qualities listed above, and this protective and fundamental relationship always needs to be supported. 

There are many things that can put stress on a parent/child relationship, though none quite as unique as when one or the other experiences turmoil with his or her gender identity.
From the child’s perspective, a parent’s struggle with gender plays a part in how the child understands gender identity as a social role, as an external quality or characteristic. All young children - those with parents who fit into the societal definition of a particular gender (i.e. “cisgender”), and those who are gender nonconforming (i.e. “transgender”), are tasked with learning what it means to be one or the other gender. The child uses many sources of information to figure this out, not the least of which is the parent as a role model. The parent serves as the child’s living example of what it means to be a man or woman (and, by extension, what it means to be a mother, father, sister, brother, or to be a male/female writer, athlete, fashion model, business executive, etc.). So, naturally when the parent’s gender is redefined, it challenges the child’s conception of male and female social roles. For example, a father of a three year old uses the “Male” bathrooms/locker rooms, etc. As this father redefines as a woman, she will begin to use “Female” bathrooms and the like. Something that for some may seem trivial, such as to what door a parent enters to use the restroom, is huge for a child, whose whole life is engrossed in learning about what doors they are allowed to go in and the appropriate place, style, time for doing such things. We do not typically think of potty training as a lesson in gender norms, but in reality it is so - girls sit/boys stand; girls go to the girls room; boys to the boys room; girls have vagina’s, boys have penises, etc. This necessary task inherently stratifies the genders, and three, four and five year olds are naturally learning and digesting rules, “norms” and the concept of “right” and “wrong.” So, when a parent changes the rules, it challenges the child’s sense of the world and how things and people work. The important thing to note is that this is not inherently a bad thing. It is the reality for many, many families and deserves respect, understanding and appropriate support.

A parent’s gender redefinition, or the struggle one must endure before making the decision to redefine, also plays a part in how the child understands gender identity as a personal characteristic. Not to be confused with a parent influencing how a child identifies his or her own gender, what is meant here is how one owns their own gender identity is influenced by how one, or both, parents own, and express, their gender identities. In just thinking of the parent as a role model, personal security or insecurity transmits from parent to child. If a parent is uncomfortable in his or her own body, the child will sense that something’s “off.” Depending on where the child is in terms of development, the parent’s redefinition can have a variety of effects, from none, to mild confusion, to total upheaval and lack of understanding, to outright rejection. Very young children may have fewer expressed difficulties with a parent’s transition and will have more years than not with the parent living as his or her redefined self. This can serve to normalize the experience more quickly. Preschool and school-aged children, because of where they are developmentally (i.e., filled with curiosity and focused on rules) may have a louder voice that might challenge the parent’s decision as going against the rules, as with the bathroom example above. To offer another example, one transgender parent interviewed described a scene where a dozen preschool children rushed her to ask questions or to make comments about her gender nonconformity. This parent experienced her child’s classmates saying “Daddies aren’t girls,” and her daughter replied, “MY daddy IS a girl.” The children in this example are repeating rules that they have learned through their social experience. Who wears what, what it means to be a dad - these things are taught both directly through teaching (parenting, schools, religious doctrine) and indirectly through a lived, social experience. 

The older the child, the more complex the issue can be - adolescents have solidified their understanding of gender and are in the process of using their upbringing to forge a life for themselves with an identity separate from that of his or her parents. A parent redefining at this age holds the potential to really shake up the adolescent. Older children and adolescents may have strong feelings against the transition. They may feel embarrassed, angry or lied to. They may go through periods where they experience more or less understanding or acceptance, as they process their parent’s redefinition as a very personal event happening
to them, uprooting their world. Some may have nothing but empathy or understanding for their parent as he or she redefines his or her life and identity. None of this is bad or inappropriate and all indicates the processing abilities and challenges of this developmental stage. The reaction a child has is as unique as the child him/herself. In all of these cases, both child and parent need support in coping with the event and reaction.   

It is crucial that people know that having a transgender parent will not make a child transgender. It will challenge the child’s conceptions of his or her own sense of what being male and/or female means and how she/he fits into those conceptions, both old and new. There can be opportunity for children to expand the social conception of “gender” and broaden the horizons of future generations and to invite a more thoughtful, all-inclusive conversation about gender and gender identity. Children need support in understanding and coping with their parent’s decision to transition from one expressed gender to one more in line with their inner experience. But, like in many other realms of conflict, where there is a challenge there is also room for deep growth and understanding. 

In all likelihood, from the transgender parent’s perspective, this could very well be the one area of their life that they feel most secure in and most happy about. They have probably experienced years of inner turmoil - as a child themselves with gender identity struggles, dealing with being a mismatch to social gender norms, enduring relationships that did not fit with their gender identity or, possibly, sexual identity. Coming to terms with their decision to change their external identity to match their internal identity and taking action to do so takes strength, bravery and a willingness to deal with things that may have been suppressed for a long time, particularly if one has children. It is hard enough for a parent as an individual to contemplate re-identification but being a parent can make it even more challenging because their children are now involved and making this change not only affects the parent-child relationship but it has the possibility to disrupt the family relationship as a whole. Divorce and separation, new alienation and estrangement, prejudice and struggles their children may face naturally affect the re-identified parent. However, their gender re-identification might not be a source of pain and conflict, but, rather, may serve as a source of comfort for them in this new batch of trying times.
Despite finding security in one’s decision to make the transition, partners, friends or family members might not find the same solace. Transgender people often have many losses to mourn. One major loss may be the loss of their partner and co-parent. Many couples who experience the gender redefinition of one partner do not survive and, often, the divorce or separation, which is nearly always difficult, can be downright brutal. While not to be confused with abnormal, transgender issues are not typical, therefore rendering both the formation and dissolution of relationships more complex. Divorce and separation always affects children, but when parents themselves are unable to contain hurtful actions or words about the other parent or the other parent’s decisions, and when the divorce and hurt feelings become more about the pain and less about the relationship, children can become confused about who and what to trust. Children and parents at this juncture benefit greatly from supportive relationships, such as those of trusted friends or with a therapist or support group.   
Children are resilient, but they do better the more support they have. Good, thorough and age-appropriate communication is always beneficial. Communicating with children can be a scary thought - what do you say? How do you say it? One idea is to create a storybook in which a narrative is created together and read again and again.This activity can spark deep conversations and can serve to help with processing the experience for both parent and child together and can expand as the child develops deeper and more complex understandings of the world and more and deeper questions about re-identification and gender identity.  http://www.mystorybooth.com/?dtrk=861

As was mentioned, support is very important - especially for the developing child and the possibly fragile parent/child relationship. Support can be sought from family and friends who are understanding, by locating and attending support groups, or by considering therapy for oneself and for the child, so each has a place to process feelings related to all the changes. Children, in particular, can find great relief in having a space where they do not have to follow the conventional rules of behavior and self expression. Child psychotherapy - psychodynamic play or talk therapy - can be extremely useful, allowing the child to express and process, feelings, and can be an effective venue for learning new coping and communication skills and well as strengthening relationships. 

In sum, here are a few areas where support is needed and, in addition to Child Therapy Chicago, a few additional resources for parents:

For the Child:

Age appropriate support for the child coping with change
Support for coping with other people’s perception of the parent’s transition
Support for other issues, such as, perhaps, being alienated by the non trans parent’s reaction to the transitioning parent
Ongoing support around the dynamics of the relationship changes with the redefining parent    

Support for Parent:

Support with decision to transition
Rebuild confidence in one's ability to parent
Support identity rebuilding
Support with social perception
Support with possible rejection of spouse or child

 Resources --

Chicago Women’s Health Center - Trans Greater Awareness Project

Further Readings --


Post by Andrea Hohf, AM, LSW

*I would like to thank the transgender women who contributed their time and information to the making of this blog post. Your input is invaluable.