How to Talk About Sex and Sexual Identity

ByABC News
November 27, 2006, 1:25 PM

Nov. 27, 2006 — -- 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.