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When Boys Won't Be Boys: Childhood Gender Identity Disorder
DR. RICHARD FITZGIBBONS and DR. JOSEPH NICOLOSI
Gender identity problems, including cross-dressing, exclusive cross-gender play, and a lack of same-sex friends should be treated as a symptom that something may be wrong — very wrong.
A mother, concerned for some time about her four-year-old son's effeminate mannerisms, lack of male playmates, and interest in Barbie dolls, finally decided to ask the pediatrician if these were signs of a problem. She was particularly worried that her husband had become increasingly upset and alienated from their son.
The pediatrician was reassuring: "This is just a phase, nothing to worry about. He will grow out of it." Unfortunately, the pediatrician was probably wrong.
Gender identity problems, including cross-dressing, exclusive cross-gender play, and a lack of same-sex friends should be treated as a symptom that something may be wrong — very wrong. Boys who exhibit such symptoms before they enter school are more likely to be unhappy, lonely, and isolated in elementary school; to suffer from separation anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems; to be victimized by bullies and targeted by pedophiles; and to experience same-sex attraction in adolescence. If they engage in homosexual activity as adolescents, they are more likely to be involved in drug and alcohol abuse or prostitution; to attempt suicide; to contract a sexually transmitted disease such as HIV/AIDS; and to develop a serious psychological problem as an adult. A small number of these boys will eventually become transvestites or transsexuals.
The good news is that if gender identity problems are identified and addressed, and if both parents cooperate in the solution, many of the negative outcomes can be prevented. According to Dr. Kenneth Zucker and Susan Bradley, experts in the treatment of gender identity disorder (or GID) in children, treatment should begin as soon as possible:
The effeminacy in some boys is so pronounced that parents may assume the problem is genetic or hormonal, but no such factors have been scientifically proven. Experts report that children who were assumed to have a biological problem responded positively to therapeutic intervention. According to Rekers, Lovaas, and Low:
Male and female he created them
Healthy psychological development requires that a little boy be able to feel acceptance by and identify with his father, experience acceptance by male peers, recognize that there are two genders and that he is male and will grow up to be a man and possibly a father, not a woman and a mother. Additionally, he needs to feel good about being a boy and becoming a man. He needs to believe that his mother and father are happy that he is a boy and expect him to become a man, and he needs to feel accepted as a boy by other boys.
If a boy feels inadequate in his masculine identity due to peer or father rejection or a poor body image, identifies with his mother instead of his father, and feels that he would like to be a girl, those around him should not pass this off as non-stereotypical behavior. There is a reason why this boy is not developing a healthy masculine identity and that reason should be discovered and addressed.
One often hears boys with gender identity problems called "girlish," but if one observes their behavior carefully, one sees that they do not resemble healthy little girls of the same age, but rather imitate adult women. For example, while doll play for healthy girls includes mother/baby play and fashion/dress up play, boys with gender identity problems focus almost exclusively on fashion/dress up. While healthy girls combine outdoor physical activities with more sedate play, boys with gender identity problems are often unreasonably afraid of injury, avoid rough-and-tumble play, and dislike group sports.
Cross-dressing and cross-gender fantasy in boys is often passed off by the family as a sign that the boy is a "great actor" or has a "wonderful imagination." Family members fail to understand that a boy who never takes the part of a male character, but identifies with either a benevolent, idealized female, such as a princess or Snow White, or a domineering, angry female is revealing a deep ambivalence toward his own masculinity and toward women. Therapy can help the boy and his family understand why he feels more confident, comfortable, and accepted when he is fantasizing that he is a female.
Bending gender stereotypes?
Today many adults try very hard not to impose rigid gender stereotypes on young children, but this push for gender openness can lead parents to ignore the symptoms of gender identity conflict. Children with gender identity problems don't inhabit a gender-neutral world where boys and girls play with the same toys. These troubled children reject certain types of play and clothing precisely because it is associated with their own gender, or they adopt activities because they are associated in their mind with the opposite sex. Boys with serious gender identity problems may use female clothing to gain acceptance or soothe anxiety, and become angry and upset when deprived of these objects.
Some parents may ask, "What is wrong with a boy playing with dolls?" The answer is that the problem is as much with what he is not doing — learning how to be a boy among boys — as it is with what he is doing, which is escaping into a female world.
Parents need to be concerned when a child openly expresses a dissatisfaction with his or her sex, such as when a boy says, "I want to be a girl" or when a girl insists she is a boy. One extremely effeminate boy, when asked, "Do you want to be like your daddy when you grow up?" responded, "I don't want to grow up." Such statements should be taken as symptoms that something is very wrong. Although the boy may feel or even express the desire to grow up to be a woman, he is male and will grow up to be a man.
Children are born with a drive to seek love and acceptance by their parents, siblings, and peers. If this need is met, children develop an acceptance of their masculinity or femininity. When this developmental task is successfully completed, the child is free to choose gender atypical activities. Boys and girls with gender identity problems are not freely experimenting with gender atypical activities. They are constrained by deep insecurities and fears and are reacting against the reality of their own sexual identity, usually as a result of failing to experience love and acceptance from the parent of the same sex or same-sex peers. Therapy is not directed toward forcing a sensitive or artistic boy to become a macho-sports fanatic, but is directed toward helping a boy grow in confidence and happiness in being a boy.
Effeminacy, cross-gender play, and cross-dressing are not the only signs that there may be a problem. Some boys suffer from a chronic sense of feeling inadequate in their masculinity, but do not imitate female behavior. These boys may exhibit an almost phobic reaction to rough-and-tumble play and an intense dislike of team sports because of poor eye-hand coordination. This inability to bond with other boys through sports leads to isolation, profound loneliness, a weak sense of masculinity, deep resentment, and often depression.
Gender identity problems also occur among girls, although the problem is less common. In some cases a father may be pleased with his daughter's success in athletics and ignore her phobic reaction to dresses or anything feminine. Girls with gender identity problems may believe that being a boy will make them safe from abuse. Other girls, like the majority of boys with GID, struggle with low self-esteem and a poor body image, and do not appreciate their God-given feminine gifts and beauty.
What should parents do if they think that there might be a problem? First, they should take any repeated problematic behaviors as a cry for help. If their pediatrician ignores their concerns, they should find a therapist who is trained in the treatment of gender identity problems. Parents can read about the subject in Zucker and Bradley's Gender Identity and Psychosexual Problems in Children and Adolescence, which offers a complete review of the problem.
Consistent cross-gender behaviors are a sign that the child believes he or she would be better off as the opposite sex. According to Bradley and Zucker, "This fantasy solution provides relief, but at a cost."(3) These are unhappy children who are using these behaviors defensively to deal with their distress.
Getting at the root of it
Parents sometimes try on their own to stop the overt behavior, but forcing a frightened child to engage in behaviors in which he feels inadequate or fearful is not the solution. The therapist can work with the child and the parents to uncover the root cause of the emotional conflicts so that the problem can be addressed and resolved.
In our experience, a challenging aspect of treatment is helping the father to realize how crucial his role is in the healing process, and then engaging him to become more involved with strengthening his son's masculine identity. This difficulty is often the result of the father's modeling after his own father (the boy's grandfather), who did not communicate praise and love regularly to him.
It is true that without treatment certain manifestations of gender identity conflicts, such as fantasy fashion doll play in boys or open cross-dressing, may disappear by the time the child is eight or nine, but these coping mechanisms are often replaced by other less overt expressions of an underlying gender identity problem. Once the problem goes "underground" it will be more difficult to treat.
Some people may avoid treatment because they believe that gender identity problems are a sign that the child was born "homosexual," and that the parents should simply accept this outcome as inevitable and encourage the child to accept a homosexual identity. Given the positive results of early intervention, the profound unhappiness of these children during elementary school, and the massive problems which accompany same-sex attraction in adolescence, parents should do everything possible to help their child resolve even minor gender identity problems.
Catholic parents need to be particularly concerned. The Church's teaching on homosexual activity is clearly stated in the Catechism, "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered . . . Under no circumstances can they be approved" (no. 2357). For a Catholic trying to be obedient to God, temptations to same-sex activity are a source of deep pain. Treatment of adolescents or adults is possible, but difficult, and the outcome is not assured. It is far better to prevent the problem or treat it in early childhood.
If a boy grows up at ease and confident about his masculine identity as a result of his close loving relationship with his father, with same-sex friends in childhood, with a mother who supports his manly development, and is protected from vicious bullying and sexual predators, the chances are minimal that he will experience same-sex attraction in adolescence. Even if one or two items on the above list are missing, the chances are still small that the boy will become homosexually involved as an adult. Generally, the histories of men engaging in same-sex behaviors reveal a history of cumulative problems: significant peer rejection, a distant father, a poor body image, low self-esteem, an overprotective or controlling mother, victimization by bullies, or sexual abuse. Fortunately these conflicts can be resolved, and the masculine identity can be strengthened and then embraced.
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons & Dr. Joseph Nicolosi "When Boys Won't Be Boys: Childhood Gender Identity Disorder." Lay Witness (June, 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons is a psychiatrist and Director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in W. Conshohocken, PA and the co-author with Robert Enright, of Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, 2000, American Psychological Association Books. He co-chaired the task force of the Catholic Medical Association that produced the document, "Homosexuality and Hope,"
Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a licensed psychologist, is the president of NARTH, the National Association for Research in the Treatment of Homosexuality, located in Encino, CA.
Copyright © 2001 LayWitness