Gender nonconforming youth are more likely to experience rejection and verbal, physical and sexual abuse from both parents and peers.
Gender nonconforming children, particularly boys, experience victimization. They are more likely to be rejected and verbally abused by their parents, and they suffer higher levels of both depression and PTSD. Men who identify as both gay and “effeminate” report more sexual abuse in childhood. This may be related to the general low value given to “feminine” behaviors and characteristics. Possibly as a result, boys are less likely to be gender nonconforming than girls.
Gender identity and child development
Children learn gender labels when very young, at 18 to 21 months, shaped by parental behavior and expectations. For example, parents give girl and boy toddlers different toys, and they often expect boys to be better at crawling than girls. At two years, children can already feel atypical if they are not like others of their own gender.
Researchers at Yale and Harvard universities in the USA reviewed how victimization of gender nonconforming children influences their development. They present a “social cognitive” approach which proposes that gender identity develops through direct influences, such as verbal messages about how boys and girls should behave, and indirect influences, such as parents modelling gender specific behavior. A child is an interactive agent in this process of development. The process is influenced by culture: for example, non-Western or more religious men are likely to be less accepting of gender nonconforming individuals.
Two types of socialisation have been studied: in the home and among peers.
Gender socialisation at home
At home, gender socialisation takes place through things like clothing, how parents praise their boys and girls and how parents use gender specific pronouns. Experimental studies have shown that adults interacting with infants introduced as a girl were more likely to give ‘feminine’ toys to the child, such as dolls and domestic items. If the infant is introduced as a boy, however, they are more likely to introduce ‘masculine’ toys, such as tools and cars, and they encourage more physical activity. Parents support things like exploration, rough-and-tumble play and dressing up differently in boys and girls, despite a lack of evidence that boys and girls are different in any domain typically associated with gender, such as crawling ability.
Parents tend to associate gender nonconformity in children with homosexuality and often discourage gender nonconforming behavior. Discouragement of nonconformity in children as young as four years includes telling them to change their behavior, punishing or restricting their nonconforming activities and sending them to counseling. Such children are also at greater risk of physical, psychological and sexual abuse in the home, and of PTSD later in life.
These problems affect sexual and gender minority youth in particular—individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or another orientation that is not heterosexual, as well as those who identify as transgender, agender, gender fluid, or another category that is not cisgender. Transgender youth are particularly exposed to negativity from their parents.
Gender socialisation among peers
When young children play among peers, their play becomes more gendered. For example, girls are less likely to play with toy cars when they are not alone. Preschool and middle-school children are more likely to befriend same-sex children with similar levels of gender-typed behaviors. Peer popularity of children is strongly related to gender conformity across childhood: there are strong social rewards for conforming.
The process of gender socialisation is visible in trends across childhood. Over time, children’s attitudes about the other gender become more similar to their friends’ attitudes. Children’s identification with their own gender grows; at the same time, peer harassment and victimization of nonconforming children increase. As a result, gender nonconforming behavior falls over the school years.
This process is linked to children’s cognitive development: they are increasingly able to make social comparisons between boys and girls, to develop a sense of self around gender and to imagine what others are thinking about them.
Gender nonconforming youth are more likely to experience rejection and verbal, physical and sexual abuse from peers. They are more likely to experience low self-worth, but only when they do not feel accepted by their peers. If they do feel accepted, no increased risk of low self-worth is present.
Child development risks from negative responses to gender nonconforming children
Gender nonconforming children are more likely to suffer depression and to have suicidal thoughts. They are also at greater risk of bullying others and becomingaggressive. The authors of the review describe the process according to “minority stress theory”, which encompasses both actual discrimination and the internalized response to it on the part of the victim. Such responses may include internalized homophobia, chronic vigilance about rejection and concealment of sexual orientation.
What can be done?
Family acceptance of gender nonconforming children is important. For example, a father’s acceptance of nonconforming behavior in his son protects the child from psychological distress. (No such link occurs between fathers and daughters.)
The researchers make recommendations to parents about how to support sexual and gender minority children – talking about gender nonconformity, respecting it, ensuring other family and community members do the same, finding adult role models, and welcoming the child’s friends.
Action in schools to support gender nonconforming children is particularly important given the long span of strong peer influence on child development. Again, the researchers direct their recommendations to the particular case of sexual and gender minority children. They recommend that schools explicitly address sexual orientation and gender and negative reactions to gender nonconformity. Teachers need training, and gender nonconforming students need support groups. The topic should be on the school curriculum, they write, and sexual orientation should be an explicit part of anti-bullying strategies.
Header photo: Jessica Lucia. Creative Commons.
Price M, Olezeski C, McMahon TJ & Hill NE, A developmental perspective on victimization faced by gender nonconforming youth, in Fitzgerald HE, Johnson DJ, Qin DB, Villarruel FA & Norder J (2019), Handbook of Children and Prejudice
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