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Dr Sharon James explains what to do if your child is confused about their gender
In recent years, a growing number of adolescents have experienced ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ (ROGD). This seems mostly, but not always, to occur among girls. Parents are bewildered as this often seems to come from nowhere. Such youngsters often belong to a group of friends in which many, even all, members identify as transgender around the same time.
This has been described as ‘social contagion’. A peer group (either real or virtual) fosters the mutual belief that anxiety and unhappiness may be caused by being ‘transgender’, and that ‘gender transition’ will provide the solution. Girls may try to 'bind' their breasts (using sports bras, or buying 'binders' on the internet); boys may try to 'tuck' or hide their genitals. Young people may change their clothing and hairstyle; experiment with different names; ask to visit a 'gender specialist'; or some may try to obtain hormones over the internet.
Here are ten ways Christian parents can help their children understand what is going on.
1. Teach children and young people God’s good design and the bigger picture
We have not evolved by chance. We are not just 'higher animals’. God created man and woman in his own image, and he created men and women different by design.
This is good news. It liberates us from the pressure of having to construct our own gender identity! We may be different from others in all sorts of ways, but the one reality of being male or female is not a choice.
Children growing up in a culture of ultra-individualism are often told that their life-goal is ‘self-actualisation’. It's a diminished vision. And it's terrifying. All are expected to forge their own super-special identity, yet the harsh reality is that very few are super-beautiful or super-talented. There could be no surer recipe for insecurity and self-obsession.
We need to encourage children and young people to respect their bodies, as we are all created by God. We live in an age which puts cruel pressure on young people to focus on how they look. We need to reassure our children that each one is special to God. Our value and dignity does not rest on how other people judge our appearance.
Children brought up with a Christian worldview can place their lives in a bigger context. 'Why did God make you and all things?' we ask. 'For his own glory' they reply. Their life-vision is laid out before them: love God and love your neighbour.
2. Teach your child that everyone should be treated kindly, no matter how they behave or what they believe
But teach them also that we should not be forced to agree with the beliefs or actions of others. Disagreement is not hatred. All bullying is wrong. That also means that our religious or conscientious beliefs should be respected by others. And teach them that real kindness is based on truth. Be well informed about the testimonies of those who regret their ‘transition’.
3. Avoid exaggerated stereotypes of masculinity and femininity
We live in an age that has tried to get rid of gender stereotypes. Women are told they can do everything men can do. Yet ironically, if children don’t fit in with accepted gender stereotypes (for example girls not wanting to dress in ‘pretty’ clothes), they may be told that they are not ‘really’ a girl or a boy.
Superficial cultural expectations can be enforced in an unhelpful way. Just because a little boy is unusually artistic and gentle does not mean that he should be pushed into thinking of himself as homosexual or transgender. A little girl may be sporty and tomboyish, but that doesn't mean that she should be pushed into identifying as lesbian or ‘trans’.
Behaviours that would have been accepted as within the normal range even a few years ago (girls wanting to play boys’ games or boys not wanting to engage in rough and tumble games) are now being interpreted as ‘gender confusion’. This defies common sense. All children are different, with differing aptitudes and gifts, which should be encouraged and nurtured, even when they may not be ‘stereotypically’ male or female.
4. Check out what your child is learning at school
Parents should resist explicit and permissive sex education. Children before puberty should be allowed to remain innocent. It is abusive to expose them to sexual activity or images before their brains and bodies are ready. Lovewise provides age-appropriate and biblically faithful resources on sex education for parents and churches (as well as schools). The Christian Institute also provides information on sex education, including a free briefing Too Much, Too Young. Their dedicated Education Officer can speak to parents, teachers or students who have concerns.
5. Check out what your child is reading and watching
Gender ideology is uncritically promoted on social media platforms such as Reddit and Tumblr. Parents need to be aware of the messages being imbibed. They also need to be alert to the ever younger age at which children may be sharing links to pornography. It is imperative to monitor internet usage and make use of all possible means to block access to this.
In a sexualised culture, children’s friendships are being sexualised as well. Much of the fiction promoted by schools now gives children the message that intimate friendship must have romantic or sexual overtones. Children are being told at an ever younger age they must ‘identify’ whether they are romantically or emotionally attached to girls or boys or both, i.e. whether they are lesbian, gay or ‘bi’.
6. Help children and young people to be critical of the claims of gender ideology
I wrote Gender Ideology: What Do Christians Need to Know? to offer a clear, simple explanation of gender theory which could be shared and discussed with young people. We can discuss questions such as ‘Do we really have to accept what people think in their minds that they are? How far must this go?’
In 2017, Rachel Dolezal, a white American woman was found to be wrongly claiming to be black. Logically, if we can choose our gender, why not our race? In 2018, a 69-year-old Dutchman went to court to claim the right to ‘self-identify’ as a 49-year-old. Logically, if we can choose our sex, why not our age?
7. If your child claims to be transgender, ask more questions
There may be distress caused by other underlying issues. Are they suffering depression, anxiety, eating disorders? Are there peer/social or learning difficulties? Are there difficulties with relationships? Is there a pattern of alcohol or drug use? Use open-ended questions to try to find out when these feelings began to occur, and especially what else is going on in their life that might have prompted them.
Remember that adolescents often experience rapidly shifting ideas and emotions. Empathise without affirming. Don’t reinforce an idea that might otherwise pass over. Be cautious about who you look to for 'professional' help. Many psychologists and psychiatrists may be far too hasty in advocating transition. ‘Gender therapists' and 'gender specialists' will very often be committed to the false ideology of gender identity theory. Try to find a mental health professional who is competent to address underlying issues without jumping to the conclusion that gender confusion must only be 'fixed' through ‘transition’.
You are not alone. Do be aware of other parents and professionals who are deeply concerned about this issue.
8. Don’t encourage ‘social transition’ or permit access to puberty blockers
In general, for most young children gender dysphoria ‘desists’ around the time of puberty. However, in cases where ‘social transitioning’ is pursued (e.g. adopting the name, pronouns, clothes etc. of the opposite sex), there is evidence that the dysphoria more often persists.
There have been no clinical trials showing the long-term safety or effectiveness of puberty blockers. It is claimed that the effects of such drugs are ‘fully reversible’, but there is no long-term evidence to prove this claim.
Out of the first 44 young people to take puberty blockers at the Gender Identity Development Service in London, no child’s dysphoria later desisted – whereas 90.3 per cent of children who did not take them did later desist.
Drugs are prescribed without proper medical diagnosis and threaten future fertility, possibly brain development, and likely result in decreased bone mineralisation (meaning a higher risk of fractures).
9. Don't be intimidated by threats of suicide
False statistics are routinely repeated, but those who transition are still often likely to commit suicide. The safest approach is actually to seek to line up their child’s perception of themselves with their biological sex.
10. Take the long-term perspective
There’s a natural and safe way of resolving gender confusion in young children. It’s called puberty. When children do genuinely experience discontent with their biological sex, if puberty is allowed to take its natural course, and you allow testosterone to kick in for boys, and oestrogen for girls, in the vast majority of cases gender confusion is resolved.
Children and young people are impressionable and immature. We don’t allow them to make big decisions in other areas. In many countries they are not allowed to drink alcohol or smoke or get a tattoo until they are 18 or even older. Some experts say that their brains are not fully wired up for mature forward thinking until they are 25.
Remember that, in time, your child may thank you for resisting their demands.
Dr Sharon James works for The Christian Institute. Gender Ideology: What Do Christians Need to Know (Christian Focus Publications) will be released on 8 November
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