Essay: Gender roles and child development

According to Webster’s Dictionary, ‘The gender binary is the classification of sex and gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine.’ In western society, Gender is viewed as strictly a binary and this conservative view of gender affects the way children learn to express and develop gender roles. Transgender is a term that includes a variety of nonconforming gender expressions or behavior but is typically used to describe someone whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. Cisgendered people are those whose biological sex matches their gender identity.
Gender roles have a large impact on child development whether or not a child’s assigned gender matches their gender identity. By age 3 children develop a sense of being gender, they start to understand the difference between boys and girls, and typically identify as one or the other (Johnson). Mental health problems like depression are impacted by gender. In the paper Gender Differences in Depression From Childhood Through Adulthood Hankin argues that one explanation of why women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression is gender roles. The gender role explanation suggests that females who identify feminine gender roles will become more depressed because some aspects of the feminine role may be more associated with depression compared with the masculine gender role. It is also argued that women experience more strain related to their gender role, causing the gender difference in depression. (Hankin)
Patrick Kearns has been a preschool teacher for ten years, and has worked with a number of young gender nonconforming students during this time. He runs the Pacific Pride Foundation’s PROUD LGBT*QIA Youth group, and has been a Marriage & Family Therapy Intern at Pacific Pride Foundation for the past four years where he has supported transgender and non binary youth. Kerns described attitudes he has seen from cisgender youth towards their transgender peers, ‘I have seen Cis youth display surprising attitudes of acceptance–but then again, the Cis youth I’m interacting with are generally in my care and they have had my detailed introduction to the lives of Trans folks, and they are also compassionate individuals–so they have warm and receptive attitudes.’ He went on to say ‘I have read or heard about other Cis youth displaying attitudes of skepticism, bullying, or confusion. Many Cis folks of all ages feel put out by how “confusing” Trans and non binary folks “make everything.” Many Cis folks express anger and frustration to have to learn new identities beyond mainstream gender binaries. These Cis folks rarely consider how confusing the notion of a static, binary gender is to those of us whose gender identities are more fluid or different than the medically assigned sexes we received at birth.’
Transgender youth face the same issues with mental health, and social acceptance, and gender roles as their cisgender peers, however, with an entirely different additional struggle. Trans youth grapple with gender identity, discrimination, bullying, and a lack of role models. Trans teens are at a high risk for low self-esteem, depression, and substance abuse. A lack of mental health resources for transgender youth could be one cause of the issue. Suicide is a big issue for all teens, and much more so for transgender youth. Nearly Half of all transgender teens consider suicide and a quarter attempt it. (Stieglitz) One way to reduce the risk of mental health issues and depression is to accept transgender youth for who they are. Patrick Kearns explained, ‘For those clients who experience gender dysphoria (which correlates to higher levels of anxiety and depression, as well as substance abuse and suicide, especially given the many triggers of our gender binary mainstream culture)–not conforming to social norms can have a positive, integrating impact on their mental health outcomes. For these clients, we see decreased suicidality, and fewer instances of depression and anxiety. When accepted by a group of peers–the positive mental health outcomes increase markedly.’
When it comes to physical health transgender youth face serious decisions and problems when it comes to their developing bodies. Some of puberty’s changes are later reversible through surgery and medication, others are not and may cause permanent changes. Hormone blockers are now being used to halt the progression of puberty and the effects are fully reversible. Puberty blockers are especially helpful for teens who have recently come out as transgender as they provide the time necessary to determine if the individual would like to proceed with hormone therapy that would cause permanent physical changes (Stieglitz).
Transgender youth constantly come into conflict with socially accepted gender norms. They are more vulnerable to bullying from both parents and peers. They also face discrimination at home as well as in school, in the workplace, and even in the law. Places such as schools, health care centers, social service agencies, group homes, homeless shelters, and foster care homes and agencies which are supposed to provide support often reject trans youth. Many trans youth fear that verbal harassment might escalate into physical violence and sexual abuse. Many transgender youth struggle academically and often drop out of school because of the lack of support at home or at school (Stieglitz). Patrick Kearns went over some of the best ways to support transgender students. He said,’Having enrollment forms and paperwork that display enough options for Trans youth to reflect their true identities is vital.’ He went on to encourage education of school officials, ‘Schools also need to educate their teachers that a child’s gender identity is a private and protected medical matter–like a learning disability or a physical disability–which means it is not the business of any other antagonistic families who may be displaying transphobic worries or anger. Administrators need to be ready to deal with families or teachers who are going to try and make a private matter a public (and often religious) debacle. Firmly held boundaries, which are supported by legal education codes and medical HIPPA law, are needed.’

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