let's talk about gender identity
We all know that being “different” is a very difficult thing in society and can even be difficult to talk about with our children. In reference to physical differences, we often hear families use the phrases “God made him/her this way”, “we all have different strengths”, and even “it’s just part of how he/she was made.”
But what about when that difference isn’t physical but is more internal? Do we use the same dialogue? Are we just as supportive or do our own prejudices make us feel “they” should “get over” their feelings of being different?
In the endocrinology community we have struggled over the past decade to do better with this very issue. To provide better care for families and children struggling with differences you may not see on the outside.
Transgender has been a taboo subject and leaves many children and adults feeling isolated and depressed. Opening this line of communication is important to prevent tragedies such as suicide. This is why as an endocrinologist, I applaud Bruce Jenner for his recent interview on his own transgender struggles. As a former Olympic medalist, his transition has generated a lot of media attention and is a great opportunity for opening this dialogue with our children. So how do you talk to your child about this issue and answer their questions?
I would suggest starting with this seemingly simple question, “not thinking about your body, are you a girl or a boy?” And then the follow up question, “why do you feel that way, what makes you a girl?” This list of answers will likely include many traits that we can identify as male or female but may end with a statement of “I don’t know I just am.” We call this our gender identity, or the gender in which we identify most (physical appearance aside).
Then I would ask, what if you felt that same way “I just am” about being a boy but your body was still a girl’s body? Would that make you feel sad, alone, different? We call that feeling (the feeling that your body and mind do not match in terms of gender) gender dysphoria and it affects more children and adults than we realize.
This feeling is how Bruce Jenner has felt his whole life and has now made a brave decision to change this. For people suffering from gender dysphoria like Bruce Jenner, these decisions may include a variety of things from changing hairstyles and cross dressing to hormone replacement and surgery. Many people with gender dysphoria struggle with making their feelings known because they fear being socially ostracized and/or hurting loved ones. Starting conversations when given the opportunity such as this one, may be a start in a more accepting society in the next generation, and ultimately, may save lives that might otherwise have been lost to depression and suicide.
If during this conversation, your child brings up their own struggles with gender identity of dysphoria, I encourage you to not only continue the conversation but to seek professional guidance when needed. Specialists on this topic in psychology can help facilitate open communication and also allow an unbiased outlet for your child. Endocrinologists can also be a great resource in not only providing hormonal care but also discussing options with your child as they age.