5-year-old AFAB niece might be trans- how can I help?
November 28, 2021 11:07 AM   Subscribe

(Using 'her' pronoun for simplicity.) My young niece has called herself a boy a few times over the last couple years, likes boy stuff (so to speak) mostly, idolizes her father and uncle (me) and not much her mother, my sister. Recently she requested (and received) a 'cool guy' haircut and asked her mother if she's a boy now. Looking for advice to pass on to my sister.

She is an anxious child possibly/probably lightly neuroatypical- frequent stimming behavior, a formidable partiality for planning and order, unhappiness with even small surprises, strict food preferences, other fixations. This is all fine (and the possibility of her being trans is also fine) but it means she is more of a puzzle to her parents. They wonder, quite understandably, if her claim that she's a boy is another fixation rather than a deeper truth.

And she's so young, she doesn't understand gender or sex. It's not at all clear she knows what it means when she says she's a boy. She definitely does not understand the import. As far as I know her mother has only been supportive, not dismissive, and hopefully this is true for her father also, though he has a conservative background and I believe he is dearly hoping this is a phase.

What advice can I give my sister and what resources can I refer her to? What kind of expert should they speak to? At this time I think the central difficulty is determining how much to cater to my niece's claims about herself in her day-to-day. E.g. should her parents start calling her a boy (when to do otherwise would upset her)? If so, what about at school? And so on.

- The family lives in Sweden
- My niece has a little brother, no sisters
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here in Germany we just went through an autism assessment with our 5.5 year old and it was done by a psychiatrist and there are also kinderzentrums that we could have gone to. That would be my first port of call, our psychiatrist was warm and friendly and explained our child’s state of mind to us and prescribed some therapies so he could develop parts of his personality to cope as he grows. It’s felt like a really good experience. I would see how this works in Sweden and have them put their feelers out for a nice child psychiatrist.
posted by pairofshades at 11:24 AM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Mermaids is a British charity specifically for trans, non-binary and gender diverse children and their families. Although the legal, health and educational information assumes the laws and systems in the UK, they have more general resources for parents that might be helpful.

I think it is unlikely that your nibling really doesn't understand gender at all. That doesn't mean that they are definitely trans, or that they understand the implications of being trans or nonbinary currently. I just mean that they understand themselves as they are at this precise moment in time at least as well as, if not better than, anyone else.

I am not sure whether the attitudes towards gender questioning children are as appalling in Sweden as they can be in the UK, but if I could choose, I would want whoever was evaluating this child's potential neurodiversity (which might be the more pressing issue) to be not transphobic.
posted by plonkee at 11:29 AM on November 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

I agree that Mermaids is a good resource for her parents. There is also some good general guidance on this site.

Really it all boils down to you (and your neice's parents) allowing them to guide you. If, at home, she wants to be called a boy, to wear boy's clothes and be called a different name (for instance), then supporting and accepting that would be beneficial to her mental and emotional health. If that needs to take place at school as well, it should be supported as far as it can be. Being open-minded and not worrying too much about the future or "what ifs" is useful. Her parents need to meet her as she is right now and engage with that rather than assuming that this does or doesn't mean anything.

If you need resources to back this up, studies have shown that children who are supported in their gender identity and expression have better mental health than those who are not. Trans youth who are not supported in their gender identity are far more likely to experience thoughts of suicide and attempt or succeed at harming themselves.

he has a conservative background and I believe he is dearly hoping this is a phase.

If this turns out to be true then it's even more important that your neice has someone open minded and accepting to turn to and feel safe around. As a trans adult who once was very like your niece, I'm asking you to please, please be that person.

[FWIW: I am following your example and using she/her pronouns and references in my comment to make it easier for you to follow, but I would encourage you to practice using whatever pronouns she has requested (if she has done so), even when you're not talking directly to her. It will make it easier for you to avoid misgendering her in the future.]
posted by fight or flight at 11:46 AM on November 28, 2021 [12 favorites]

The standard advice that I hear is to take your guidance from the child - it's a win-win, because if the child is a little trans boy, he's being supported right away, and if the child is not trans then they're still being supported in figuring out their identity rather than getting into a power struggle over a haircut, etc. It's always better to let the kid work through the stuff on their own, just as with food - you don't want to install a lot of anxieties and complexes just so that your kid conforms to some purposeless norm.

There is no need to figure out the "deeper truth" of a five year old's gender. What possible need for a "true" gender does a five year old have? The child will figure out their own gender in the years to come. I think it might help the parents to think about what they're really worried about - are they worried about problems with school and the neighbors? Are they worried that their child will suffer? Are they worried about loving a gender-non-conforming or trans child enough? What does "deeper truth" stand in for here?

Why does the kid need to "understand the import"? If this kid were talking about how she was a girl and girls like pink and girls do this and boys do that, would the parents be worried about "understanding the import" of thinking that she is a girl? The kid feels, right now, like a boy. No harm is going to occur if this turns out to be three or four months of exploratory pretend.

I have a number of friends whose kids have had varied gender expressions and my friends have pretty much rolled with it. It's only ever been weird when adults made it weird, or taught their kids to make it weird for my friends' kids.

I honestly don't know whether I'd medicalize this right now - that's just my own feeling. Let the child live as a boy for a while and see what happens. Being trans isn't really a mental illness, for one thing; "assessments" are really about gatekeeping unless they're about proper, supported access to hormones, etc.
posted by Frowner at 11:49 AM on November 28, 2021 [49 favorites]

I just want to give some context to my advice about seeing a psychiatrist. I don’t really have any experience with the gender issues in the question so I can’t give advice on parenting in that regard. It was the first paragraph below the fold I was mostly responding to. The child sounds anxious and possibly like they might end up needing support in school (which I am assuming starts soon?) and in Germany it’s very critical that you start shoring up your support in the first year or so because it’s much harder to get as the child goes through school. A psychiatrist here is able to have a voice in your child’s education and write prescriptions and recommendations/orders to the city to provide certain supports etc. I have a feeling it could be similar in Sweden? So I was thinking more along those lines, just trying to be helpful based on that initial paragraph.
posted by pairofshades at 12:02 PM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

My understanding - at least from a decade or so ago - is that Sweden had been on the forefront of study and pedagogical support for children and gender. But I think five is still technically "pre school" in Sweden with the formal education system starting at seven, but generally educational professionals in Sweden are highly-trained and familiar with school system and social system resources, so my expectation would be that the best first step (for a bunch of reasons) would be a conversation with the child's school administrator.

There is no One Definitive Way for a child to be trans or diversified from the stereotypical binary, and most experts in the US tend to encourage letting the child lead as best you reasonably can and provide support and encouragement even if you think it's entirely possible they are just onboarding the concepts of gender in a more full-spectrum way. (Which is great and all kids should get to do that.)

I think there's an inclination to rush some kind of final definitive decision on the part of caring adults because ambiguity can be socially and professionally uncomfortable for us, but there's (mostly*) no rush with a five-year-old. You don't need to have a big talk about pronouns until they want to (particularly if the schools there are more flexible and accommodating than US schools often are), or names, or what kind of clothes X versus Y are - just let them vibe with whatever suits them for a while. It's okay if they change their mind, or if they don't, or whatever. It may be a burden on the parents to some point to insist on social accommodation - they might have to end some friendships, they might have to take a stand now and then - but parents can get support from therapists and books and organizations.

If it feels like limitations in communication are causing distress to the child**, then various forms of occupational and play therapy are great for teaching kids and parents better communication skills and emotional regulation. It can be really helpful (honestly for any family with small children) and probably also is extremely easily accessed in a social-service-oriented society that supports parents and parenting.

*At least, I hope this isn't true in Sweden but it is certainly an existing pressure in the US, if the timing at all works out, to start them in the school system or at least at a new school as the inclined gender, as it is difficult and dangerous to make a public change. I think there are some kids who end up poorly-served by that even when it actually does keep them safer, but everyone would be better off in a more accommodating environment.

**Which has definitely been a challenge with some of my friends with non-conforming kids. Little kids don't have the vocabulary for "something is going on that feels strongly against my nature and it's making me miserable but I have no way to contextualize that for myself or for you" and that can be exhausting for everyone involved, so communication coaching and emotional management skills are super handy here.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:06 PM on November 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm using they bc it is unclear the childs preference, and I don't want to misgender this child.
They are telling you who they are right now at 5. Kids deserve their identities validated, even if they change later. Supporting a kid in their pronouns and dress costs you and your family nothing and will mean the world to the child.

A kid who is trans will suffer significant psychological harm if their parents are not supportive and they will still be trans.

In general a important thing to remember is to allow this to be self led and open so there is no pressure to be any particular way.

Kids who are five do have a understanding of gender in how they are interacted with adults and peers. Kids at that age are very aware of gender in perhaps simplistic terms but it is enough and it is something that is being brought up daily. Even with you right now.

When kids ask questions about say 'am I a boy because I have short hair' there is a few ways to talk about it. You could talk about that all people can have different hairstyles, you could talk about that people express what they feel like in a variety of ways and people who feel like boys often have short hair but sometimes they don't. You could talk about how body parts (and gender identity aren't the same thing. There are many options to help them think and expand understanding of gender and gender identity.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:19 PM on November 28, 2021 [8 favorites]

What you're describing as "lightly neuroatypical" sounds to me well within the realm of how an autistic child being raised in a supportive environment as a girl might present, which I mention here not to diagnose a person based on a single paragraph, but because the neurodiverse population has a higher-than-average propensity towards trans and/or non-binary identities, and seeing that connection in the context of "actually these could be more than quirks" might help the father/everyone understand that even if the child seems to not understand gender as they do, this can still be real. I very much agree with all the recommendations to follow the child's lead in this regardless however. Cis children are "believed" about their gender identity from the very beginning, before they remotely understand what it means, and very few people agonize over whether their kid is "really" cis or just going along with familial/societal expectations, even though that is a thing. Here I'm not seeing any reason to think that this child doesn't have an age-typical understanding of gender, which is to say: a perfectly good one, even if it does lack some nuance. My non-binary child was able to describe their gender identity by the age commonly listed on milestone charts for doing so, which is three, and the other children at their school all clearly had opinions and ideas about gender and identity at that same general age, because if they didn't, we'd have had–and be having–an easier time of things. If the adults in this child's life want to actively encourage a more diverse understanding of gender presentation, that's great, but thinking that all boys are one way and all girls are another and there's no other option is hardly a sign of not understanding the overall concept.

One concrete thing they might try is providing children's books specifically about being a trans boy* and seeing how the child reacts. I'm guessing it will be with relief. At very least it will start giving everyone vocabulary to talk about gender with so that there's not this sense that the adults live in one world and the child in another.

*There are other lovely books too about being gender non-conforming and/or non-binary, but I'd offer the trans boy narrative first to see how the simplest answer fits, and to avoid possibly pressuring the kid any more about being a girl. Presumably the child's world has included the general idea that girls are smart and capable and so on, and that girls don't have to look/act a certain way, so if that were resonating, why would this have even come up?
posted by teremala at 12:44 PM on November 28, 2021 [13 favorites]

I liked the The Gender Creative Child by Diane Ehrensaft and Norman Spack as a research-based resource that is inclusive, affirming, and easy to read.
posted by Otis the Lion at 2:01 PM on November 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

"frequent stimming behavior, a formidable partiality for planning and order, unhappiness with even small surprises, strict food preferences, other fixations."
There is significant overlap between autism (and similar neurodivergencies) and gender divergencies. Both should be learned about, supported, and respected by the child's parents. Also, however the child's gender identity evolves over time, there will be a community of people who understand how it is to be both.
"And she's so young, she doesn't understand gender or sex . . .She definitely does not understand the import."

Though children may not understand the nuances of gender or sex as the gigangic concepts they are, or all the things "transgender" can mean across a lifetime, they start gaining the ability to describe their gender around age 3. (In some cultures, age 2. Lots of people start examining their gender in adulthood. Basically, this child is not early. The adults may be thinking, "You're too young to know what you're talking about." but the child isn't talking about Gender, just their own gender.)
posted by meemzi at 1:07 PM on November 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

« Older Masters in Psychology vs. Masters in Social Work   |   Shed light on description for technical job? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.