My Daughter Dresses Like a Boy and Says She Is One
A Guide for Parents of FTM Children
If my daughter dresses like a boy, it doesn't mean anything, right?
For many parents, this question is a first, hesitant step towards acknowledging that something is "different" about their child. Of course, many girls enjoy wearing jeans, playing sports and doing other things that used to be considered "traditionally male." Most of these children either grow into other interests when they are older or grow up to be non-traditional women. However, for a small number of children, liking to dress like boys goes beyond the external. These children are transgender, and their parents are often bewildered about how best to support them in a society that is not set up for them.
Whether your child is a girl who enjoys expressing herself in ways that are considered masculine or a transgender boy, you're about to take a very rewarding journey--one where you learn more about who your child really is, who you really are and how to best love and support them.
Photo courtesy of Fotopedia
About This Guide
This guide is meant to help parents of FTM boys understand, accept and support their children. A separate guide for parents of MTF children is in the works; however, these parents may also find some of the information in this guide useful.
Transgender 101 - Pronouns, definitions and other important info.
Throughout this guide, you'll notice that I refer to FTM individuals as "he." This is because I, like many such people, consider myself male. It's respectful to call people by the pronouns that they identify with. In some places I may use "he" in conjunction with the word "daughter." Although this may be confusing, please bear with it. It's an attempt to respect your child's gender identity.
Similarly, you should call your child by the pronouns s/he identifies with. Some people prefer gender-neutral pronouns such as "ze" rather than he or she, but I have stuck to "he" throughout this guide for the sake of clarity.
A couple definitions to make sure we're all on the same page.
- Transgender A person whose gender identity does not match their biological sex.
- FTM Female to male, or a transgender person whose biological sex is female but gender identity is male.
There are many other words and concepts associated with being transgender, but these are the main ones you need to understand for the purpose of reading this guide.
What It Feels Like To Him If Your Daughter Is Transgender
My Personal Observations as a Transgender Man
Every transgender person's experience is a little bit different, but I'd like to share some of my personal experiences to help you understand the way it feels to be a FTM boy.
Being transgender is often confusing for children, especially if the adults around them aren't familiar with it. For me, childhood was messy because I didn't feel right being a girl but didn't know that I could be a boy with a girl's body. I preferred playing with boys, but after about third grade most boys didn't want to play with me because they saw me as a girl. I put up with that and with many things I disliked (like wearing dresses to Hebrew school) because I thought that I was crazy to think I was a boy. By the time I was 10 or 11, I had pretty much repressed my gender identity, which I am sure contributed to my depression as a teenager.
Transgender boys have a wide range of experiences. Some are painful like mine and some are happier. However, what we all have in common is that we view ourselves as boys or men despite the shape of our bodies. I remember at the age of 9 or 10 fantasizing about what my beard would look like when I grew up and then reminding myself sadly that I would not have one. (Fortunately that is changing now that I am on hormones!) These kinds of thoughts are natural to us--we view ourselves as the boys we are and it doesn't make sense that adults keep insisting that we are girls.
Puberty wasn't particularly nightmarish for me because by that time I'd pretty much repressed my gender identity. As an adult, however, I've struggled with hatred of my female chest. I won't go out of the house without my binder on; a couple of times I went to throw out trash in my pajamas and a neighbor was outside, which made me very anxious. It's been hard for me to have a positive body image because of my chest. I also used to get really upset when I got my period because it didn't match my gender identity. It also really confused me that I would have mood swings right before menstruation. I felt that since I was a guy, it made no sense that female hormones were affecting my mood, and the fact that they were made me even more irritable.
If you have a FTM boy, he may or may not experience some of the distress that I have experienced. He may be masculine or feminine in appearance, mannerisms or interests. The only thing that's for sure is that he is a boy regardless of what his anatomy is.
Even If My Daughter Dresses Like A Boy, Can He Know He's Transgender?
There are a couple of reasons you should take it seriously if your daughter says directly, "I'm a boy," insists on getting his hair cut short and throws tantrums when asked to wear traditional girls' clothes such as dresses.
- Although it may seem strange to you, many children have a deeply held gender identity at young ages. It can be just as confusing for your kids as for you if you insist they are not the gender they say they are. Many children do not know there is any such thing as transgender. When I was little, for example, I thought there was something wrong with me because I felt like a boy rather than a girl, and it scared me.
- Regardless of whether your child is truly transgender or is going through a phase, it strengthens your relationship with them to take their feelings seriously.
- Transgender children who are denied the ability to express themselves as the gender they identify as tend to act out more as well as suffer more from depression and other mental health issues. These children are at great risk for suicide.
Suicide and Transgender Children
41% of transgender people attempt suicide, and most of these do it before the age of 18. Suicide happens for a lot of reasons, but I think that feeling isolated has a lot to do with it. Children who feel accepted and loved by their families are less likely to try to hurt themselves.
- Take some time to come to terms with your child's gender identity. Most parents want to accept and support their children, but at the same time they need to process their new understanding of their child and their feelings about it. Sometimes parents feel a sense of loss because the daughter they thought they had doesn't exist. It's harder for some parents than others to adjust; it may take some time, and you may need to talk to other parents of transgender children or to a professional who is familiar with transgender issues.
- Find a doctor who is familiar with transgender issues. Transgender kids need to feel comfortable at the pediatrician's office and may need special transition related care as they get older. Some parents take their children to a psychiatrist who specializes in these issues to help them figure out their child's gender identity. It's up to you and your family to decide whether this step is in your child's best interest.
- Talk to your child's principal and teacher. It's important to talk to school administrators and teachers prior to your child's social transition. If these people are supportive, they can help your child re-adjust to school as a boy and deal with any bullying issues related to your child's transition. If they are unsupportive, you need to know this so that you can decide what to do. Some parents have their children transferred to another class or school so that they don't have to be around children who knew them as a girl or deal with unsupportive adults.
- Search for support groups for parents of transgender children. You may want to join both general support groups and support groups specifically for parents of transgender boys. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) may be able to help you find support in your area.
Is My Child Mentally Ill?
The DSM-IV currently lists "gender identity disorder" as a mental illness. However, as a transgender person, I want to reassure you that being transgender is NOT a mental illness. Transgender people's brains are "wired" like the gender(s) they identify with. There is a biological mismatch between their brain's wiring and their body's anatomy.
FTM Boys and Hormones
As your transgender son approaches puberty, you have to make an important medical decision on his behalf. Doctors can prescribe hormone blockers that will stop him from going through puberty so that he will not develop breasts or begin menstruating. The treatment is reversible--if your son stops taking hormone blockers, he will experience female puberty.
This is a decision each family must make on its own. Going through female puberty can be traumatic for FTM boys, but parents often have concerns about how this treatment will affect them later on.
Would you choose to give your transgender son hormone blockers?
Videos About Transgender Children
If you or your child feels alone, these videos might help. They feature other transgender children and their families.
If Your Child Comes Out To You After Adulthood
Although it's becoming more and more common for children to announce that they are transgender at young ages, not all transgender people come out before adulthood. There's also a number of guys who have lived their whole lives as girls and women and then in adulthood realize it isn't working for them. (I didn't come out to myself or to anyone else until I was in my 30s, after years of therapy and trying to get a handle on depression and anger problems.)
If an adult child comes out to you, it can be even harder to adjust to his identity. At this point, you've had decades to get used to him as a woman, and you may even have doubts as to whether he is "truly" a man.
The most important thing to do is trust your child. If he says he's a man, trust that he knows what he's talking about. This doesn't mean you can't ask questions about his experiences or how he realized he was transgender; just talk to him about it like you would any other major event in his life.
If your child comes out in adulthood, resist the temptation to suggest how to handle his transition. You are no longer responsible for his medical care and decisions in this area. Simply listen and offer whatever support you can.
The transition process for adult transgender men differs slightly from place to place, but basically he will be deciding which of the following steps he wants to take.
- Dressing in masculine clothing, potentially including wearing a binder or other device to hide female chest growth and/or create a bulge in his pants.
- Changing his name legally to a male name.
- Seeing a therapist trained in gender issues to explore his identity and/or deal with negative feelings related to his pre-transition life.
- Getting testosterone shots or testosterone gel to aid in masculinization.
- Getting one or more surgeries to modify his body to make it more masculine (i.e. removing breasts or uterus, having surgery to create male genitalia)
Not all trans guys take all of these steps, just as not all younger children go through the exact same process. It is up to each person to decide how far they want to take the process.
If you came here because you were concerned that your daughter dresses like a boy and/or that your daughter is transgender, hopefully this guide helped address some of your questions and put your mind at ease. If you have additional comments or concerns, I'd love to hear from you. Please post your comments below and I will get back to you soon. (I try to answer questions within 48 hours but sometimes life gets in the way.)