What is gender identity? What is gender dysphoria? How about gender questioning? If you have ever asked any of these questions or something similar, this post is for you.
Below, we’ll explore the considerations in navigating gender identity. Keep reading to learn how to approach the topic with sensitivity and awareness.
We need to stop you right there.
The first and most important thing you need to understand is that gender identity is not something that is a fad at all.
It’s also important to note that it’s different than acknowledging a person’s sex at birth and their sexual orientation.
Gender Identity is a stage in The Gender Identity Development Model which has also been referred to as the Gender Identity Development Framework.
In many ways this Model or Framework is fluid. Psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals are still learning about the many facets of gender identity.
At the time of this writing, the model is a culmination of several models. They include those of American psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Sandra Bem.
Kohlberg believed that there were essentially three stages of gender development
In OpenLearn’s report on Cognition and Gender Development, they shared Kohlberg’s three stages as gender awareness, gender labeling, and gender stability.
Here’s a brief look at each of them:
Gender awareness: The earliest stage, in which infants become aware of the concept of gender through observing the behavior of others and learning social cues associated with gender.
Gender labeling: Typically occurring between ages 2-3, children learn the labels associated with gender (i.e., “boy” and “girl”) and begin to use them to describe themselves and others.
Gender stability: This stage typically occurs between ages 3-4. In this stage children begin to understand that gender is a stable and enduring characteristic that does not change over time.
In the early 90s, Sandra Bem added to these ideas and explained that individuals can actually exhibit characteristics of both males and females.
She created what’s known today as the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI) – a questionnaire that helps to characterize a person as:
Bem’s ideas helped continue the model that Kohlberg began, and expanded it with two additional stages: gender consistency and gender identity.
Gender consistency: In this stage, children may begin to believe that gender is a consistent characteristic across situations, regardless of clothing or activities.
Gender identity: In this final stage, which for most children occurs around age 6, children develop a clear and stable sense of their own gender identity. However, this may or may not align with the gender assigned at birth.
That is where therapists skilled in gender therapy are called upon – to help children work through their feelings to become the version of themselves they want to be.
Whether you’re seeking gender therapy for yourself or for your child, there are some important things to keep in mind.
1. Not all therapists are trained in gender therapy.
It is critical you work with counselors that understand the complexities of navigating gender identity.
Look for a counselor that is well versed in things like:
It is not enough for your mental health professional to know that you’re struggling with what you identify as. They need to have a firm understanding of the various terms and identities associated with gender. This will enable them to walk you through what you’re feeling.
It is imperative you find a gender therapy professional that will help you from a place of non judgment. And in a safe space that is free from bias or agendas.
In other words, your therapist should never push you or your children towards any specific ideals.
Additionally, the American Psychological Association recommends you seek a mental health professional that:
2. It’s okay to question and be curious or confused.
This is especially true for children. Stereotypes and pressure to conform to expectations can be quite troubling for adolescents.
It’s only made worse by the media and pop culture pushing ideologies into our everyday lives. Some companies try to share toys, products, and entertainment that don’t put specific genders in a box. It can still be confusing to figure out how you feel.
Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you have to like dolls, for example. And just because you’re a boy doesn’t mean you can’t wear a dress.
Unfortunately, most societies, even liberal ones, haven’t completely caught onto the fact that everyone is unique. And everyone deserves to express themselves in the way they see fit.
This is why it’s so important you look for a therapist that can empathize with what you’re going through.
No one should ever feel judged or made to feel lesser than for how they choose to express themselves.
3. It’s also okay to change your mind.
As you navigate these uncertain waters, you may find you lean more towards one end of the spectrum than you did when you first sought out a therapist.
That’s okay too. A good therapist will never shame you for making another choice. They will simply help you reveal what is best for you, and then help you work through that choice.
If your child is exhibiting what is commonly known as gender questioning, a gender therapist might be able to help them through it.
Gender questioning is the process of exploring and questioning a person’s gender identity. For example, a young person assigned the sex of male at birth might not feel that they are in fact a boy.
A gender therapist can help your child answer the questions rattling around in their own head.
For some people, gender questioning can lead to a realization that they are transgender, non-binary, or another gender identity that better reflects their internal sense of self.
For others, gender questioning may be a temporary experience. Or it may lead to a greater understanding and acceptance of their gender identity.
There are several different types of therapy that can be used to help a child struggling with their gender identity. But, the two most commonly used methodologies are:
How is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy used in Gender Therapy?
CBT has been proven to be beneficial in treating a variety of conditions. These include gender dysphoria and gender questioning.
CBT seeks to identify the thoughts and behaviors that drive an individual’s distress. The process is to develop strategies to reduce them.
In gender therapy, it can be used to help individuals explore their identity, beliefs, and experiences. This is while essentially holding their hand as they navigate their gender identity.
CBT also works by identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to:
In the case of gender therapy, these negative thoughts may include beliefs such as “I will never be accepted for who I am.” Or it might be “my family will disown me if I come out.”
By working with a licensed gender therapist trained in CBT techniques, children and adults alike can learn to challenge these thoughts. They will develop more positive coping strategies.
How is EMDR used in Gender Therapy?
One way that EMDR can be used in gender therapy is by helping individuals process and release the negative emotions and/or traumas that may be related to their personal gender identity.
For example, a transgender individual may have experienced discrimination or rejection from family members or peers. As a result, they may have internalized negative societal messages about their gender identity.
These experiences can create emotional and psychological distress.
This distress can ultimately impact a person’s mental health and well-being.
EMDR can be used to help you process these difficult emotions and experiences, and to reprocess them in a way that is less distressing.
Through the use of EMDR, your therapist will guide you through a series of eye movements, sounds, or taps, while they focus on a specific negative memory or emotion.
As you move through your sessions, your brain’s natural healing process will activate and you should be able to reprocess your experiences in a positive way.
Gender therapy is just one form of gender-affirming care.
But, what is gender-affirming care exactly?
The Office of Population Affairs within the Department of Health & Human Services explains that “Gender-affirming care is a supportive form of healthcare. It consists of an array of services that may include medical, surgical, mental health, and non-medical services for transgender and nonbinary people.” (This quote has been referenced by a number of authoritative websites (NationalReview, DailyCitizen, TCU and others), but the document that it was quoted from has been removed from the OPA Website).
The goal of gender-affirming care is to ensure that every child regardless of the gender they most identify with, feels safe and supported.
According to The Trevor Project, “Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24…and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are at significantly increased risk.”
Statistics like this are just one of the many reasons gender-affirming care is so important.
Positive outcomes are much more likely when patients are treated as individuals, and not judged based on their physical traits and/or gender identity.
In their 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, The Trevor Project reported, “LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity but rather placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society.”
First, and most importantly, let them know they can tell you anything and you won’t judge them for it.
Be there to listen, and if you choose to respond do so from a positive place.
If you don’t know the answers to questions they have, tell them. Let them know that you are willing to go on this journey with them and find the answers.
And, if necessary, seek the help of a qualified gender therapist to work through their thoughts and feelings together.
Resources That Might Help
Here are a few resources you might want to consider for both your own education and to help you better understand what your child may be going through.
You don’t have to navigate gender identity alone. Pathways Counseling Services therapists are available to help you through it all.
Pathways Counseling Services is the top-rated therapy and counseling service in Scottsdale, Arizona, year after year. We can help you live a happier and healthier life through effective and supportive mental health care. Book an appointment today, or you can reach us by phone at 480-235-1682