How to Talk About Sex and Sexual Identity

The ABC daytime soap opera "All My Children" announced groundbreaking plans today to introduce a character undergoing gender reassignment surgery -- a sex change.

This is the first coming out of a transgender person to be chronicled on daytime television.

For many, this new character signals more drama and more entertainment.

For some parents and other caregivers, however, this raises the potentially daunting issue of how to talk to children about transgender surgery, cross-dressing, and other situations where people depart radically from socially sanctioned gender norms.

Simply put, how can a parent respond to a child's questions about gender reassignment?

Fortunately, there are some basic principles that parents or caregivers can use when talking about gender reassignment or any potentially difficult topic, as well as some ground rules for how to frame the conversation.

Ground rules include the following:

Each Family Is Different

Different parents will have different thoughts, feelings and values about gender reassignment. It's important to respect your own values in the conversation, while providing a safe environment for your children to ask questions and formulate their own opinions.

It's difficult to have a discussion about this topic when you don't know what you yourself think. If your child approaches you -- as is often the case -- before you have had a chance to think about this, let them know that you are happy to discuss it with them, but need to think about it a little first. Parents don't always need to provide instant answers.

Take a Neutral Tone

No matter what a family's values are concerning this topic, there is never a reason to get angry at a child for asking a question.

Shutting down a question rarely makes a child stop thinking about the issue -- instead, children are likely to become more focused on topics that they see create anxiety within the family discussion.

In other words, if they know it gets a reaction, they may use it to get a reaction. This is particularly true where subjects that may have been taboo in parents' upbringing are concerned. Focusing on facts and values rather than feelings is probably helpful.

Jay Reeve is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Florida State University, and a chief clinical and managed care officer at Apalachee Center in Tallahassee, Fla.

Remember What a Child Can Understand at a Given Age

What can parents say that will guide the discussion in a way that is appropriate for children? Common sense and an understanding of child development will help here -- remember the developmental level of your child.

Research suggests that there are several different mental growth stages that children pass through, and a discussion that would be appropriate for an 8-year-old is very different from one that would be appropriate for a 16-year-old.

In general, children younger than 8 may not understand anything more complicated than "some people think that they were supposed to be a woman rather than a man, and there is a way that doctors can do that," if delivered without strong emotion.

But children in the middle school years might need a more in-depth discussion about gender reassignment or where other variations on typical gender roles might arise from, or how these roles might affect a person's life.

This is an age when children are very atuned to questions of rules and boundaries, and may want to talk about whether behaviors that cross or transcend some rules or boundaries are "right" or "wrong." In responding, it's OK for parents to focus on and discuss their own values, ethics and religious concerns, as long as the tone of the conversation is factual and somewhat dry.

Stay calm and remember, it's a healthy conversation.

This conversation can lead into a discussion of gender roles, social expectation, and other issues focused on identity. Parents or caregivers of adolescents should well know that any discussion of identity or social expectation could start a real fire -- and that kids are very capable of responding purely for the sake of "shock value."

Staying calm and factual here can be a real plus.

Finally, remember that, like all potentially sensitive topics, this one may be less about the specific issue, and more about the child's desire to talk with an adult.

If parents and caregivers can give the message that talking to them is positive no matter what the topic, the chances that children will keep up their end of the conversation are good -- and that's good for children.

Jay Reeve is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Florida State University, and a chief clinical and managed care officer at Apalachee Center in Tallahassee, Fla.

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