The holidays are just around the corner and that means food, friends, and family fun. But things are a little complicated this year.
Your young child is gender non-conforming and you’re wondering how to inform all the aunts, uncles, and grandmas and grandpas. They love your kid and you love them. And you want your kid to have an awesome holiday.
First, your kid is not alone.
Nationally and here in Maine, the numbers of gender non-conforming young children are increasing — and it goes way beyond boys who like to wear dresses and girls who want short hair. At OUT Maine, we’re providing more trainings with elementary schools and educators than ever before.
In a study at the University of Washington that followed 85 gender non-conforming youth for six years, they found that kids who exhibited “the most extreme identities” of gender expression, different from the one they were assigned at birth, would most likely be living as that gender before they reached puberty.
What often surprises folks is that kids who eventually change their gender do so because they already have a strong sense of their identity.
They know who they are.
But if that gender doesn’t match a child’s gender assigned at birth, it can be difficult for them to build a positive self-image during their early years.
Your young child needs you as their advocate and intermediary with the family — and we’ve got some suggestions for how to bring your family members on board.
Next, start with your child.
It’s always a good idea to prepare young children in advance for a big event — where it will be, if you’ll be traveling a long distance, who will be there, and what yummy food they can look forward to.
Depending on how old your child is or how they present their gender, your conversation may go a few different ways. The main thing is that your child knows they can count on you to feel safe.
“What do you think you’ll want to wear to the party? Dress or pants? What will make you feel the most festive?”
“Do you want your aunties and uncles to call you by your new name?”
Keep the tone light as you gauge your child’s feelings. They might show some hesitancy about the upcoming gathering or about sharing their new name with the family. Or maybe they’re super excited to share their new name with just a few or all of the folks who love them! If you know how your child’s really feeling, you’ll be better prepared to support them.
Keep the focus on your love and support for your child. The goal is for them to feel safe, and feel good about being with their family. Let your child know you’ll check in with them throughout the event to be sure they’re feeling comfortable. And if things start to feel icky, how will they let you know? With a secret code? Or a whisper in the ear?
This will be your cue to enact your exit plan. Your exit doesn’t have to be dramatic or awkward. It might be as simple as saying you need to head home early because your child’s not feeling good (which is not a lie).
Give your child enough time to process their feelings prior to the event. There may be some mood swings leading up to an exciting day — from eager anticipation to nervous agitation — and this is normal for all kids, whether gender non-conforming or not!
Finally, talk to the allies.
And we don’t just mean LGBTQ+ allies, we mean your kid’s allies in the family. You already know who they are — those folks who are always there for a snuggle, one more story, or building with LEGOs.
Start with a statement like: “We’re all really excited to see you this holiday, and I want to share something important that’s going on with [child’s name].”
Then get right to it. Let your family member know the important details: “[Child’s name] is gender non-conforming. What this means is ____.”
And you’ll fill in those blanks with details like, “He’ll probably be wearing his princess dress to the party”, or “We’re using new pronouns now, __/___”, or “They wanted me to share their preferred name with you.”
Close with something like: “I know how much you love _________, which is why it felt important to share this with you. Do you have any questions for me?”
We’re guessing their first question may be…
“What if I say the wrong pronoun or use the wrong name?”
This is the number one fear of adults — getting it wrong.
Reassure your child’s ally — “We’re still learning too!” — and then give them some tips for what to do in the moment, not if, but when they say the wrong thing.
Share that mistakes definitely happen as we get used to a new name, terminology, or pronouns. Our brains are forming new neural pathways! So go easy on yourself and try to get it right the next time.
The queer youth we work with recommend three things: apologize, restate the correct name/pronoun, and move on. Don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t over-apologize. And most importantly, don’t say “This is hard for me”, because it’s not about you.
All of this can be a lot, even for the most loving adult to take in. Invite them to take some time to process, then come back to you with more questions.
Even if your child isn’t ready to be out with the whole family, connecting with the allies is a beautiful way to build a support network for your child.
But, wait — what’s a nibling?!
Nibling is a gender-neutral term for niece or nephew, so it’s perfect vocabulary to share with the aunts and uncles. Plus, doesn’t it sound so dang cute?
Studies show that having just one understanding adult helps LGBTQ+ youth feel that they matter — and this can make a huge difference. At OUT Maine, we’re here to uplift Maine’s queer youth by building a strong safety net of supportive adults.
Wishing you a peaceful holiday season — and if you haven’t already, click here to make a gift to OUT’s annual appeal.