Parents Responding to Child Who Wants to Be the Opposite Sex

What should we say to our eight-year-old son when he tells us that he wants to be a girl? He's always been a gentle and sensitive child – keeps to himself, plays quietly indoors, and doesn't seem interested in joining other boys in their activities. But recently he's started saying that he isn't really a boy at all, and that he feels more like a girl on the inside. I'm almost certain that this has something to do with the fact that another child at his school switched his gender identification just a few months ago. We're very concerned. What would you do if you were in our place?

First, a word to you as parents. There’s nothing wrong or unusual about gentleness and sensitivity in a boy. To an important degree, that’s just a culturally influenced myth. The issue you’re facing in this area is how to build into him masculine qualities that are consistent with his character and true to his nature. There’s no such thing as “a typical boy” and no single right way to become a man. When it comes to the practical challenges of guiding and molding well-adjusted boys in the modern world, we’d suggest that it’s not so much what boys do that matters as how they go about doing it.

That said, we need to add that situations like the one you’ve described – cases in which a young boy seems to have a definite and persistent unwillingness to accept his male identity (“I’m not a boy! I want to be a girl!”) – are uncommon and require formal evaluation by a professional who is qualified to deal with behavioral issues and gender confusion in children. Accordingly, we’d advise you to seek counseling for your son and family right away. Be sure, however, to find out where the therapist stands on this issue. Don’t entrust your son to someone who will affirm and encourage his rejection of his own maleness and masculinity. Also avoid counsel that heaps on shame or gives simplistic answers. Before committing to a course of therapy, ask the potential counselor what his training and perspective are on transgenderism and how he or she would approach it in a clinical context. If necessary, show the therapist some of Focus on the Family’s materials on the subject (we’d especially recommend our series of articles on Transgenderism) and say, “Does this analysis resonate with you?”  If not, look for a mental health professional who can work with your family on the level of your own faith commitment while maintaining a gentle and compassionate approach to the needs of your son and your family.

To this we would add that family dynamics can often play an important role in the genesis of gender non-conformity or gender dysphoria. A boy who reacts against his biological sex-assignment and manifests this reaction in his behavior can sometimes be acting as a messenger or “symptom-bearer” for the rest of the family – or at the very least, indicating extra-familial stressors that he’s absorbed from his world in some way (the situation with the child at school who’s identifying as the opposite sex might fall into this category). Whether he realizes it or not, he may be calling attention to deeper issues embedded within the fabric of the environment in which he is growing up. In such instances, the best plan of action is to get the entire family into family-systems counseling. This way the family and the circumstances surrounding a child, including factors beyond the immediate borders of the home, can be considered.

Due to the complex nature of gender non-conformity, a number of factors can be involved. It would be good to ask yourself if some of your child’s feelings might be connected with a recent crisis. Are you and your spouse struggling in your marriage? Has there been a death or a serious illness in the family? Has something happened to place unaccustomed strain on your son’s relationships with family members, friends, teachers, or peers? If so, a sudden and intense interest in “becoming a girl” could simply be a way of escaping the pain or signaling some other facet of emotional connection or expression which is legitimately needed.

Here at Focus on the Family we have a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. If you’d like to discuss your concerns with one of them, you can contact our counselors for a free consultation.


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Understanding the Myths of Gender Identity and Transgenderism

Transgender Resources

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