Dear Dr. Jenni,
My son is 6 and has put on his older sister’s dresses and shoes. Recently he got into my make-up. Part of me feels like this is typical, developmental exploration, but my husband adamantly disagrees. We are nervous about what is going on, and what to do.
You are correct. Your son’s behavior is most likely normal, curious exploration, especially if he admires his older sister and wants to emulate her. Even if your son exhibits feminine behaviors, he may grow out of this stage. On the other hand, he may continue towards displaying female behaviors and props. If he exhibits a keen and persisting distaste for his penis, then he is likely transgendered.
If it is a transgender case, keep in mind that this is not about sexual orientation. It is about gender identity as girl or boy, or somewhere in the androgynous realm. Transgender is a term to describe individuals who feel incongruent with their genitals and assigned gender at birth.
While there has been long-standing debate as to whether gender is nurture or nature, a safe bet is to assume both. The nurture argument states that gender can be viewed as a social construction with implicit rules and scripts. The nature argument claims there is an intrinsic feeling that the brain and the genitals are aligned, or not aligned. Either way you slice it, the result is that when transgendered individuals feel a strong sense of rejection from silence or shame, self-hatred can manifest in depression, substance abuse, and/or suicide.
The best thing you can do as parents is to support him as a human being, whatever the outcome may be. Use sexually affirmative mental health services or resources like PFLAG (www.pflag.org) to help you process any fears. The more comfortable you feel around this, the more supportive you can be for your son.
Dear Dr. Jenni,
I read “Kids’ sexual health” last week, and I have a question about my 7-year-old daughter. My husband complains that I have shut down sexually since she was born. It’s true that I am very nervous about having sex, in case she might walk in. I remember walking in on my parents, and I was horrified. I don’t want to replicate this experience for her, but I don’t know how to balance what is good for my daughter and what is good for my husband.
When kids walk in on their parents, as you did decades ago, the aftermath is often silence. Parents feel embarrassed at the mistake and say nothing, hoping the child will forget. But clearly you have not forgotten, evidenced by your fear of having sex with your husband while your child is in the house.
If your parents talked to you about what you witnessed, and explained that mommy and daddy join bodies and genitals as an adult expression to make and show love, you might have had a different reaction. Research shows that when children do not get accurate and adequate sex education, they invent their own mythological explanations.
Your daughter is at a good age to discuss procreation and how she was made and born. Furthermore, occasionally closing your door to have adult time to make love is perfectly acceptable. You are not closing your child out for good. You are creating a necessary boundary for her to understand that parents need a little privacy, too. Rather than hiding sex as a silent and shameful activity, you are role-modeling that making love is a beautiful and essential ingredient to a happy marriage.
Send questions for Jenni Skyler, PhD, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Skyler is a sex therapist and board-certified sexologist who runs The Intimacy Institute in Boulder, www.theintimacyinstitute.org.