How To Respond To A Child Who Wonders About His Gender?
What to answer to a child who questions himself, shows that he does not feel good in his body as a boy or a girl? In his book C’est pas mon genre! (1), to be published on February 9 by Marabout editions, psychiatrist Anne Bargiacchi gives keys to understanding parents who do not know how to react, feel lost, and even helpless. For ten years, the doctor was responsible for “the consultation for gender-expansive young people” (understand for young people whose roles do not correspond to feminine or masculine stereotypes).
This former head of clinic at the Hospitals of Paris notably appeared in the documentary Petite fille , by Sébastien Lifshitz. We see her chatting with Sasha, who has felt like a little girl since the age of 3 but was born in a boy’s body. Broadcast on Arte in December 2020, the film had attracted nearly 1.4 million viewers. Dr. Anne Bargiacchi, who now lives in the United States, says she is “happy” that the film was able to “increase the visibility” of transgender people, and made “discover a little-known subject” to some viewers. It’s not my type! , she continues her educational work and advocates tolerance. Interview.
Who are your patients, and how do they discuss gender issues with you?
Dr. Anne Bargiacchi. – Many are aged 12 to 14, and they are starting to research on the Internet. This is not the case for everyone, but some types, for example, “girl in a boy’s body”, or “boy who feels like a girl”. They ask questions about gender expression and roles, more than about gender identity (the intimate and deep sense of belonging to the feminine or masculine gender, a mixture of the two or to neither, regardless of gender biological, Editor’s note). Others, aged 16 to 17, are trying to find out how to express themselves quickly in the gender to which they feel they belong. In the case of very young children, it is the parents who have observed behavior that does not conform to gender stereotypes. The little ones do not always question the one assigned to them at birth, or not yet. Conversely, some pray every night to wake up in the right body.
Some children pray every night to wake up in the right body
DR. ANNE BARGIACCHI
In your book, you talk about gender dysphoria. Can you define the term?
This is the suffering specifically linked to this feeling of incongruence between the gender assigned at birth and the one to which one feels one belongs. This suffering can come from being misgendered ( being designated by a pronoun or chords that are not the ones you want, editor’s note) in society, to have expectations that one does not fulfill vis-à-vis oneself (being always referred to as the fact that our body does not resemble us, in particular), or even coming from a feeling internal dissonance. Gender dysphoria replaced the term “gender identity disorder”, listed in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 2013. Most people who specialize in the care of transgender people agree that being transgender is not a disease, but that the specific suffering of the patient requires a diagnosis.
At what age can a child start wondering?
Between the ages of 2 and 3, children begin to take into account how the environment is organized around this idea of gender. They realize that there are two, a priori and that most people belong to one or the other. Up to 6 years old, they begin to categorize, sort, to make sense of their environment. From a developmental perspective, it seems that for some, the earliest age at which gender identity begins to stabilize is 6 or 7 years old.
When, as parents, should we seriously pay attention to this?
A ready child will ask questions. If we don’t know the answer, just saying he’s asking a good question and we’ll think about it is great. The child must understand that he is not ashamed to feel these emotions, that his parents are present if he needs to talk about them during small exchanges, daily. It can also be emphasized that these questions are neither a sign of illness nor a sign of oddity.
Questioning your gender identity is neither a sign of illness nor a sign of weirdness
How to react to a request for transition?
In general, coming-outs are rarely accompanied by a direct transition request. If the children and teenagers consider it, they will be matured afterward. When making an unexpected transition request, it is important to remind the child that there are several ways to do it. He will first be able to make a social transition, ie everything related to the change of first name, pronoun, and therefore gender in grammatical agreements. In practice, this encompasses how they are called and gendered within the family or school, how they dress, their hair, the social roles they may adopt, and legal changes, such as that of the first name on civil status. The child may or may not then consider a medical transition.
How does a social transition take place, in practice?
It goes through trial and sometimes an error. Teens can do tests, including changing clothes or pronoun(s), first with some friends, or just with their parents. When doing these explorations, it is important to encourage them to listen to their feelings, rather than wondering how to tick boxes. I advise parents to learn as much as possible and to explain to their child that he has the right to go back and that it does not matter. We can also recommend that the child concentrates on what he would like to go towards, rather than thinking all the time about what he would like to see disappear from him.
Spread unconditional love
Parents will sometimes make mistakes and blunders. What are the criticisms and attitudes to avoid when the child wonders?
It is imperative not to resort to shame. If a parent uses love or disappointment to influence their child to change and implies that the child’s feelings are invalid or should be silenced, it will be counterproductive. This will have an impact on the way the child expresses it, on his self-esteem, and his ability to take care of himself.
You have to transmit the unconditional love you have for the person you are.
What to do if you feel that you have hit your child?
It is very important to acknowledge this and apologize. It’s about transmitting the unconditional love we feel for the person he is, not for the one we hoped to see him become. It is also necessary to avoid all forms of violence, whether physical, moral, or verbal, as well as more subtle manipulations, even if it is “to protect him”.
That is to say?
For example, if a teenager wants to dress as a girl to go to a party, and we find it dangerous, we must be clear about what makes us say “no”. If the parents say they are supportive, their actions must be in line with their mentality and be able to say “yes” from time to time, to allow the teenager to experiment. Admittedly, parents step out of their comfort zone, and that can be very scary, but the conviction that despite this fear, it is possible to get there, will allow the child to face danger.
In the documentary Little Girl, Sasha’s school struggles to understand her situation. How can the reluctance of certain schools be explained?
I think this is a very misunderstood topic. It sometimes arouses reactions of fear. There are a school or extra-curricular establishments which position themselves as defenders of children, who think they are in danger. There is then a lot of educational work to be done, to help them gather the right information. We often encourage parents to share links, and documents that can open the dialogue. When the sharing of information is not sufficient, it is necessary to call on professionals from specialized associations or medical professionals.
(1) It’s not my kind!, by Dr. Anne Bargiacchi, published on February 9, 2022, Ed. Marabout, 256 pages, €19.90