Are you raising, or do you know anyone raising a child who is gender expansive? Parenting a child with gender expansive behavior is a marvelous, and often complicated, journey. Our world remains a very gendered place- where it is clearly understood what behaviors and interests are expected for girls and how those expectations differ for boys. Just take a walk through any toy aisle, or clothing store. Clothes and toys are sorted strictly by pink and blue- boys’ toys are blue and red and rough and tumble. Girls’ toys are pink, purple and pretty. Boys build and bury things, girls take care of dolls or cook in play kitchens. I would argue that strict gender rules are limiting for all of us, but there is a group of children for whom these rigid rules are actively harmful.
To continue this discussion, some definitions are important. We used to think that gender was based solely on the two categories- boy or girl- based on exterior genitals. Ultrasounds would give clear clues, and then gender was thought to be done the minute the doctor announced it officially in delivery rooms. Sex assigned at birth is the phrase we use now to refer to those boy or girl categories assigned based on genitals.
We now understand that gender is much more complicated than two finite categories. Different from sex assigned at birth, our gender identity is our internal head-and-heart felt sense of gender. Others cannot determine this at a glance. For some, their gender identity can change over a their life time, and for others, their gender identity remains stable throughout their lifespan. For some people (called cisgender) their gender identity is in alignment with their sex assigned at birth. For others, (called non-binary or transgender) their internal felt sense of gender is not in alignment with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Another important concept in understanding gender, is the idea that our gender expression (how we show our internal felt sense of gender to the world) is different from our gender identity. Gender expression refers to things like how we dress, or wear our hair, or the interests we choose. Some exploration with gender expression is common during childhood. Many of us have stories of sons asking for their toenails painted, or daughters playing with Tonka trucks. This type of exploration is exactly why there are dress up clothes in preschool classrooms. Our gender expression can change from day to day, but gender identity is more stable.
Finally our sexually orientation refers to whom we find romantically and sexually attractive. It has nothing to do with how male or female or both or neither we feel, and it is entirely separate from our gender identity.
By the time children are in preschool, other children and adults notice if the clothes and toys they choose are unexpected based on their sex assigned at birth. It is often expansive gender expression that comes to adult attention first. And in many cases, those around gender expansive children let them know quickly that what they are doing is breaking societal and/or family norms. This type of negative peer and adult feedback often happens swiftly, and starts as early as preschool.
It is important to note that not all children who demonstrate gender expansive behaviors ultimate identify as non-binary or transgender. Sometimes gender expansive children grow up to be cisgender and heterosexual. Others ultimately identify as cisgender and gay or lesbian. And others identify as non-binary or transgender. From a parenting point of view, it is critical to have accurate information, and an ability to deal with ambiguity and follow your child’s lead.
Parents of gender expansive children often find themselves in situations where they need to decide whether, and how, to support their gender expansive children. Increasing data shows clearly that the more support gender expansive children have, the happier and better adjusted they are. And in fact for gender expansive, non-binary and transgender children and teens, a lack of parent support is connected with higher rates of anxiety, depression, suicide attempts and substance use. Yet, many parents have understandable confusion about gender identity development, and understandable fears about negative things their children will experience if they “allow” their children to behave in gender expansive ways.
Gender expansive kids and their parents in global nomad communities face distinct challenges. Rotating populations in expatriate communities means that gender expansive behavior is “discovered” repeatedly by changing peers, teachers and neighbors. Some host country laws mean that establishing support groups and gay/straight alliances on school campuses can be tricky. In some global nomad communities, parents are particularly hesitant to have their children identified as having “specialized needs” of any kinds as there can be career implications for parents and families living far from “home” in their passport countries. For all of these reasons, global nomad parents raising gender expansive kids need particularly informed and sensitive kinds of support to be able to benefit from many of the strengths of the thoughtful, culturally savvy global nomad community.
It is really common for all parents of gender expansive children to feel confused, isolated, and worried about the implications of decision-making along their child’s gender journey. Even the most affirming parents often need support navigating this journey. It can be an especially important time to find knowledgeable and understanding guidance and community. There are beautiful parts of walking a gender journey with a child- and parents often need support handling the hard parts to be able to fully embrace gifts that along the way on a distinct, gender expansive journey.
- Key Elements in a gender affirming home
- Scripts for supporting parents
- Foundations in gender: how do I understand this?
- Scripts for talking with and listening to our kids about gender
- Gender Journey: Scripts to use with loved ones
Author: Laura Anderson
Dr. Laura Anderson has been a licensed child and family psychologist for nearly twenty years. For many of those years, Dr. Anderson ‘s offices have been primarily based in school settings. She has worked in public, private, international and charter preschools, elementary, middle and high schools. Dr. Anderson has expertise in learning and behavioral assessments, emotional/behavioral support at home and school, and home-school communication. In recent years, Dr. Anderson has done presentations related to supporting LGBTQ youth and their families at major conferences across the United States and in international locations.
In her personal life, Dr. Laura Anderson was lucky to call Hawaii home for many years. Recently, she relocated to the Oakland area in California after living for several years in West Africa. Dr. Anderson has an adventurous spirit and a travel habit. She has visited many countries and lived out of the United States on four occasions in Asia, Australia, Africa and out of her portable backpack. Dr. Anderson enjoys the learning that comes with travel and is invigorated by the rich complexities that are inherent in cross cultural communications and friendships. She is a fiercely loyal friend and has maintained numerous long-term friendships and kinship relationships around the world.