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Gender Confusion Explained

Does your daughter refuse to wear dresses and like throwing a football with the boys in the neighbourhood? Does your son have an interest in girls’ clothes or cosmetics?

When pre-teen children exhibit these kinds of behaviour, their parents often are concerned and many questions arise: Is my youngster’s behaviour abnormal? Should I be trying to change him or her? Does he or she need professional help?

Youngsters actually begin developing strong gender identities long before middle childhood. A child’s awareness of being a boy or a girl starts in the first year of life. It often begins by eight to ten months of age, when youngsters typ­ically discover their genitals. Then, between one and two years old, children become conscious of physical differences between boys and girls; before their third birthday they are easily able to label themselves as either a boy or a girl as they acquire a strong concept of self. By age four, children’s gender identity is stable, and they know they will always be a boy or a girl.

During this same time of life, children learn gender role behaviour—that is, do­ing things “that boys do” or “that girls do.” Before the age of three they can dif­ferentiate sex-stereotyped toys (trucks, dolls) that are identified with boys or girls. By three years of age they have also become more aware of boy and girl ac­tivities, interests, and occupations; many begin to play with youngsters of their own sex in activities identified with that sex. For example, you probably saw your daughter gravitating toward dolls, playing house, and baking. By contrast, your son may have played more aggressive and active games and might have been attracted to toy soldiers and toy trucks. These gender role behaviours, in­cluding the toys children play with and activities, in which they engage, are in­fluenced by how youngsters are raised and what expectations are made of them.

In middle childhood, gender identification continues to become more firmly established, not only in children’s interest in playing more exclusively with youngsters of their own sex, but also in their interest in acting like, looking like, and having things like their same-sex peers. During this time of life you will see your child express his or her gender identity through gender-specific role behaviour, some of which began during the preschool years:

  • Through his or her toys, play activities, household tasks, and family roles. Most often, boys will choose to play “boy games” with masculine attrib­utes, while girls will select “girl activities” with feminine characteristics.
  • Through social behavior that reflects varying degrees of aggression, dominance, dependency, and gentleness.
  • Through the manner and style of behavioral and physical gestures and other nonverbal actions that are identified as masculine or feminine.
  • Through social relationships, including the gender of the friends your child chooses and the people he or she decides to imitate. During the elementary-school years, children continue to be most involved with children of their own sex: boys playing mostly with other boys, and girls playing mostly with girls. Boys often voice a strong dislike of girls, and vice versa, during the early school years, perhaps as a means of strength­ening their own gender identification.

The gender-role behaviour of children seems to be strongly influenced by their identification with the males and females in their lives. All children pick up characteristics from the men and women around them, incorporating these traits into their own personalities and value systems. They are also influenced by TV and sports heroes and adults in all other activities in their lives. Over time, the combined effect of these many influences may determine many of their masculine and feminine qualities. Perhaps more than any other factor, the subtleties of every child’s relationship with his or her father and mother—and the attitudes of the parents toward each other and toward the child—will influence his or her gender-related behaviors.

Sexual Stereotypes

Stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviours and characteristics perme­ate our culture. And when a child’s aptitudes and interests deviate from these accepted norms, he is often subjected to discrimination and ridicule.

As a parent, it is natural for you to have concern about whether your youngster is accepted socially. You will probably find yourself trying to teach him so­cial behaviours that will allow him to function well in this culture, even if they sometimes seem to run counter to his own interests and talents. However, you need to weigh your well-meant efforts at promoting conformity against your child’s need to feel comfortable with and good about himself. Even if he doesn’t fit the accepted stereotypes—that is, even if your son doesn’t excel in sports or even have an interest in them, for example—there will still be many other opportunities and areas in which he can excel. Each child has his own strengths, and at times, they may not conform to society’s or your own expectations. Yet they can still be a source of his current and future success and self-satisfaction.

Ironically, social stereotypes evolve over time. In recent decades, there has been a tidal wave of change in gender roles and behaviours. Today, women are expected to be more assertive and “feminist” than their mothers and grand­mothers were. Men are allowed and perhaps even expected to express their “softer,” more compassionate, and more “feminine” side.

Thus, rather than force your own child into the mold of current or traditional gender behaviour, help him fulfill his own unique potential. Don’t become ex­cessively concerned with whether his interests and strengths coincide with the socially defined gender roles of the moment. Let him evolve in his own way.

When Gender Identities Become Confused

Occasionally, children seem to display gender-role confusion. More than just lacking an interest in sports, for instance, some boys actually tend to identify with females. Likewise, some girls identify more with masculine traits. Conflicted about their gender, they may deny their sexuality. Rather than learn to accept themselves, they may come to dislike that part of themselves that is a boy or a girl.

At the extreme, a boy may seem more effeminate and have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • He wants to be a girl.
  • He desires to grow up to be a woman.
  • He has a marked interest in female activities, including playing with dolls or playing the roles of girls or women.
  • He has an intense interest in cosmetics, jewelry, or girls’ clothes and en­joys dressing up in girls’ apparel.
  • His favourite friends are girls.
  • On rare occasions, he may cross-dress and actually consider himself to be a girl.

Effeminate boys are sometimes ridiculed, teased as being “gay,” and shunned by their peer group. This rejection may intensify as the boys get older. As a result, they may become anxious, insecure, or depressed and strug­gle with their self-esteem and social relationships.

On the other hand, girls who identify with boys are thought of as “tomboys.” They usually encounter less social ridicule and peer difficulties than effemi­nate boys do. For many girls, some tomboyishness seems to be a very natural course toward healthy adolescent gender identity. Yet there are rare girls who exhibit one or more of the following traits:

  • They express a wish to be a boy.
  • Their preferred peer group is male.
  • When playing make-believe games, they prefer male roles over female ones.

These traits suggest a conflict or confusion about gender and relationship with peers of the same sex. The possible causes of these variations are spec­ulative and controversial. Research demonstrates a role for both biological factors and social learning in gender-identity confusion.

Family and parenting influences also might contribute to gender confusion. Family studies indicate that effeminate boys often have unusually close rela­tionships with their mothers and especially distant relationships with their fa­thers. Research suggests that the mothers of some effeminate boys actually encourage and support “female” activities in their sons.

Parents of these children often ask whether gender confusion will influence their youngster’s sexual preference and orientation later in life—that is, whether their child will become a homosexual. Long-term studies suggest that some (but certainly not all) effeminate boys and tomboyish girls do become bisexual or homosexual in late adolescence and adulthood.

What Should You Do?

If your middle-years child seems to have distortions and confusions in gender identity, discuss boy and girl, male and female behavior directly with him or her. For instance, talk with your child about the specific gestures or behavior that may provoke reactions from others, and identify together some that might be more appropriate. Through a sensitive dialogue, you might be able to help your child better understand his or her behavior and why it gets the responses it does from peers. Providing a lot of support for your child can bol­ster his or her self-esteem and counteract the social and peer pressures he or she might be facing.

In addition to your own efforts, talk with your pediatrician, who may suggest that you consult a child psychiatrist or child psychologist to help overcome the youngster’s confusion and conflict. Consultation with a mental-health pro­fessional may be necessary when there are questions of gender identity, espe­cially when any of the following are present:

  • The child refuses to accept his or her biological sex.
  • The child plays exclusively with youngsters of the opposite sex.
  • The child is socially isolated at school and/or is teased or ridiculed by peers.

Early professional intervention can be helpful to the child and family by helping work through the confusion that may exist about a child’s gender identity. However, there is little evidence that mental-health services can influence gender identity in the middle years.

Our society continues to move toward breaking down many of the sexual stereotypes that direct and limit our behavior, and creating an environment of greater sexual equity and balance. The need or desire for professional help should be guided to some extent by the discomfort of your family, and to a greater extent by the social discomfort of your child.

Sexual Orientation

A child’s sexual orientation is a related area that may be of concern for some parents. A youngster’s interests and behaviour during middle childhood may cause mothers and fathers to worry that their offspring might be homosexual. They may inappropriately discipline the child or seek professional help to ensure that he becomes heterosexual.

However, this is a time when acceptance and support for your child should be paramount. An individual’s physical and emotional attraction to a member of the same or the opposite sex appears to be a biological phenomenon. Some recent research has shown that the brains of homosexual men—specifically, the amount of tissue in parts of their hypothalamus—differ from those of heterosexual men. Only rarely, if ever, is sexual orientation caused by personal ex­periences and environment.

Your own child’s sexual orientation is actually established quite firmly by the middle years. But since there is little opportunity to test and act out this orientation, it may not be evident to the family until adolescence or even later. Meanwhile, keep in mind that many children try out different ways of relating to their peers, and these can be confused with heterosexual or homosexual orientation.

The greatest difficulty for children and adolescents who are homosexual is the social pressure they feel to behave heterosexually, and the discrimination they may experience because of their sexual orientation. This may isolate them from their peers and even their family, and their self-esteem and self-confidence can suffer terribly in the process. A large proportion of teenage suicide attempts is linked to issues of gender confusion and to perceived re­jection of an adolescent with a homosexual orientation.

Sexual orientation cannot be changed. A child’s heterosexuality or homo­sexuality is deeply ingrained as part of them. As a parent, your most important role is to offer understanding, respect, and support to your child. A non-judge-mental approach will gain your child’s trust and put you in a better position to help him or her through these difficult times. You need to be supportive and helpful, no matter what your youngster’s sexual orientation may be.