I walked into my daughter’s room the other day and found my 14-year-old son dressed in her clothes and putting on full makeup. Dress, heels, nylons, the works. Pretty sure my initial reaction wouldn’t be “counselor approved” but I was horrified. When I demanded to know what he was doing, everything got a whole lot worse. Apparently he’s “always hated being a boy” and he “identifies more with being a girl.” If he had it his way, he’d run around in dresses all the time. I told him that I wasn’t going to put up with any of his perverse crap under my roof, and that if he didn’t like it, he was welcome to leave. Then I said he had to choose between playing football or wrestling, but that sports were now going to be a constant in his life from now on. He’s always hated sports, so I’m thinking that probably wasn’t my best move, but I was totally unhinged. I always thought we were a normal American family and now this. My wife is freaking out as well, plus she’s mad at me for “doing it wrong.” My son and I have been avoiding each other for about a week now, then I came across your site. I don’t consider myself to be a hateful person, but I’ll admit I don’t get this dudes wearing dresses thing and I’m not sure I want to. But our family can’t keep on like this, either. It’s a mess and everyone’s walking around on eggshells. Help?
This is one of those issues that no family wants to deal with, and I greatly sympathize with the mess you are all in. Is there a less miserable way to address this? Yes, and it’s even possible for you and your son to end up closer instead of permanently divided. The first step is for you to get a better understanding of what’s going on in your boy’s head, so let’s get into it…
Understanding Gender Discomfort
Suppose you start a new job and on the first day one of your coworkers says you have freak hands. Before that comment, you’ve never viewed your hands as looking odd, but soon a bunch of guys are crowding around you agreeing that you do indeed have some very strange looking mitts. In a week’s time, your “weird” hands have become the joke of the office, and derogatory emails about you are flying around. All of this social heckling is causing you to feel very uncomfortable and embarrassed about a part of your body that you previously didn’t think twice about. With even your supervisor joining in on the heckling, you are starting to feel hopeless about ever gaining respect in this new workplace unless you can get everyone to stop focusing on your hands. But what are your options here? Wearing gloves certainly seems like a tempting idea. While it would look a bit ridiculous, you’re becoming rather desperate to hide your “freak hands” from everyone’s sight. Even you have grown uncomfortable seeing your bare hands, because the sight of them causes your mind to fill with memories of all the hurtful comments people have made about you.
So what’s happened in this situation? You entered a social environment feeling totally comfortable with your hands, but then a series of very upsetting experiences caused you to start looking at that part of your body in a very negative light. Anatomically speaking, there is nothing wrong with your hands. But while your hands haven’t changed, your psychological associations with them have. Before you got the new job, you viewed your hands positively because they were so useful to you in life. But they were just a body part to you–you didn’t mentally link them to your value as a man, your safety in crowds, or any other such concepts. But now that other people are using your hands as an excuse to harass and upset you, you are starting to feel threatened by that part of your body. You find yourself frequently wishing your hands looked more “normal”, and you start wearing gloves when you’re at home just so you won’t have to look at them.
Now the same psychological mechanics I just described are what your son is dealing with now. Only in his case, it’s not his hands that he’s developed a strong mental aversion to, but his overall gender. Physically covering himself in female clothes would feel as attractive to him as putting on gloves was to you. But just as you knew that your coworkers would give you a bunch of flack if you showed up at work with gloves on, your son knows that wearing dresses in public would make him a target of all kinds of unpleasantness.
One of the key things I want you to realize is that you are far more capable of understanding your son that you’re giving yourself credit for. What’s throwing you is that he’s focused on gender instead a more familiar anatomy issue, such as an extra large nose or ears that stick far out from his head. But the principles at work here are essentially the same: your son has formed intensely negative psychological associations with certain parts of his anatomy, and he is naturally going to grasp at any solution he can think of, even if it’s costly.
Defining the Problem
Now cases like this vary quite a bit from person to person. When your son says that he hates being a boy, he is defining the concept of boy in a specific way. He could be focusing on anatomical qualities that are unique to males, such as his privates. Or he could be defining “boy” as a set of concepts, such as “being tough” and into sports. American society has a general definition of “masculine,” but then you and your family have your own definition as well. These two definitions will overlap some, and they’ll also have some differences. For example, some dads teach their sons that “real men don’t cry” while others model that it’s perfectly acceptable for men to show emotions. Your personal definition of “masculine” will be very important to your son, because gaining your approval is one of his core needs.
Now when powerful male figures in a child’s life are defining “masculine” in a way that the child feels hopeless about living up to, a lot of stress results. For example, if you were a huge football fan, yet your son simply doesn’t like sports, he could leap to the assumption that he’ll never gain your approval because he will never be able to “measure up” to your definition of a respectable man. All sons make assumptions about how their fathers view them, and it’s often false assumptions that cause the most grief. This is why communication between you and your son is so important, especially now that you’ve discovered this struggle that he’s probably been trying to keep hidden from you.
Because parents are such critical figures to their children, they can easily cause their children a lot of stress by their actions and words. But this doesn’t mean you should assume that you are a key factor in why your son has developed such a negative view of his gender. The list of possible triggers in these cases is endless. Events at school, interactions with his peers, religious teachings, exposure to certain types of media, negative life events, and even observing his sister’s life can all result in your son forming strong negative beliefs about being male. Once those beliefs form, his mind will become very distressed and start trying to come up with ways to find peace. Dressing up like the opposite sex is just one of many strategies that minds turn to for coping with this kind of stress. It’s helpful to realize that your son didn’t consciously choose this strategy. Instead, he’s feeling an internal push from his subconscious to experiment with dressing feminine. The mind is essentially testing out ideas here, and seeing which ones give it the most relief.
Since it sounds like your son hasn’t latched onto a single coping method yet, this is a good time to introduce him to other options that will be less costly to him in the longterm. As an adult, you understand better than he does how difficult his life is going to be if he tries to go around dressed like a woman. Coping strategies which require the cooperation of others are the most difficult to pull off, and trying to get the general public to pretend you’re a different gender than you are is one of those “likely to fail” plans.
Escaping vs. Joining
Now it’s helpful to understand that your son’s stress is being caused by a specific kind of logic, and that the logic he is using can be quite different than another boy who is exhibiting the same behaviors. For example, he could be trying to pass himself off as a girl in order to escape a gender that he has associated with pain, danger, rejection or some other negative concept. Or he could be trying to join females because he views them as superior in some way. While the surface behaviors look the same, these two motivations are significantly different. The point is that your son’s mind has a deep game here and it’s acting on a set of conclusions that it feels it has come to very logically.
Uncovering the mind’s exact logic in these situations often takes time. In the meantime, you can only work with the clues you are given. As upsetting as it was to hear, it’s actually very helpful that your son was able to communicate that he feels a strong repulsion to being a boy, that he’s felt this way for a long time, and that he’d rather identify as a girl. His strong negative language about being male suggests he might be dealing with an escape motivation. If he was instead focused on a joining motivation, I’d expect him to make some comment about girls being better than boys in some way (having an easier life, more privileges, less expectations, etc.). The fact that your son says he’s felt this way for a long time indicates that the life experiences that originally upset him occurred when he was much younger. This is not unusual for these cases. Very young children are easily traumatized due to their limited life experiences. A simple trip to the doctors for standard immunization shots or a harmless bite from the neighbor’s dog can easily throw a young mind into a state of terror that it might get stalled in. Again, don’t assume you are to blame here, but realize that if it does turn out that your son views you as a key contributor to his stress, that doesn’t mean you are guilty of trying to upset him. You can’t control how your child interprets your behaviors, nor can you force their minds to unlearn false beliefs. All you can do is offer support and present them with helpful options. But at the end of the day, it’s up to your son to decide how he is going to manage his own internal struggles.
Since it sounds like your son is dealing with some very strong fears that have been getting reinforced for years, I’d suggest three things. First, you need to change your response to him. Referring to your son’s internal angst as “perverse crap” is going to communicate that you have no sympathy or interest in his suffering. Try to remember that example about your coworkers heckling you about your hands. Being uncomfortable in your own skin for any reason is a very miserable thing because there’s no way to get away from your own body. While your son’s coping strategies might not be ones that your own mind would choose, they seem worth a shot to your son’s mind, and they also demonstrate how desperate he is for relief.
Once you have the resources to do so, I’d recommend that you either sit down with your son alone in the house or take him out for a one-on-one chat. Explain that this is new territory for you and that you didn’t feel you handled that earlier moment very well because you were caught off guard. Tell him that you’ve looked more into this issue because you really care about him and want to understand what he’s dealing with, but you’ll need his help to do so because you can’t read his mind. I’d then suggest that you find a way to gently break the news that trying to pass himself off as a woman in public is going to be setting himself up for a lot of pain because most people aren’t going to be very compassionate about this kind of struggle. If the opportunity arises, I’d also suggest encouraging your son to consider talking to someone more about why it bothers him so much to be male. If you think you could learn to be a good sounding board here, great. If not, offer to help him find a counselor if he decides he wants one. But in the meantime, offer to help him come up with some other activities that might help him feel less stressed without making him a prime target for bullies.
Masculine and feminine are very broad ideas that can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. Right now your son’s mind is trying to lower its stress levels by seeking out activities that it associates with being like a girl. Well, wearing female clothes isn’t the only way to do that. There are many other activities that minds classify as feminine, such as yarn crafts (crocheting, needlework, knitting), ballet, and cheerleading. Instead of forcing your son to do masculine sports, encourage him to think about some other activity he could get into which might help him feel like he’s getting a break from having to be “manly.” There are plenty of very challenging activities, crafts and hobbies that could make your son’s mind feel calmer while setting him up for less social heckling. As dad, if you make it okay for your son to explore some of these activities without shaming him, it could end up being a win-win.
Traumatized minds often feel very drawn to the arts as a means of venting stress. Perhaps your son would find it helpful to participate in theater or play an instrument or experiment with painting. While he is going to attract a lot of flack if he personally wears make up, he might find it interesting to explore the idea of becoming a professional make up artist or hair designer. The point is that there are many avenues your son can explore which can help him gain some psychological relief and perhaps even gain some valuable job skills while not setting himself up for a bunch of social persecution.
When possible, it’s very helpful to steer the mind towards coping strategies that avoid causing injury and can be easily abandoned when they are no longer needed. For example, it’s a lot easier for a man to abandon his personal hobby of knitting than it is for him to overcome a social reputation of being “the guy who went around in women’s clothes.” Because wearing women’s clothes, legally changing your gender label, and even undergoing surgical operations are all just attempts to put patches on psychological stress, they will actually feel like negative burdens once the root causes of that stress are fixed. To use my hand analogy, were you to move on to a new company where your coworkers weren’t such jerks, you’d no longer want to go around with gloves on all the time. A coping method which felt necessary at your old job would quickly feel like a hassle at your new one. In the same way, once your son resolves the issues that are currently causing him to view being a boy so negatively, he will actually want to embrace his masculinity, and he will regret it if he’s made permanent alterations to his body or legal identity which prevent him from feeling like his true self. So while severe psychological stress definitely needs to be treated with respect, it’s very helpful in the longterm if the stressing mind can latch onto coping methods which will have the least negative longterm consequences. Often minds can be redirected to better coping methods than the ones they are currently experimenting with. This is especially true early on when the mind is still fishing around for ideas and hasn’t yet committed to a particular coping method.
You definitely need to talk with your son as soon as possible. By changing your tone from disgust to sincere caring and a desire to help, you will hopefully be able to get him to feel better about his ability to talk to you about this issue in the future. Take back your threat about making him play sports, but encourage him to come up with some other activity that he can get into. The most important thing you can communicate to your son at this point is that you love him as your son, and that you’re not going to emotionally shun him just because he’s dealing with issues that you don’t personally relate to. Even if your son acts defensive in the moment, it will mean a lot to him that you’re making such an effort to understand what he’s going through. At this point, your son probably doesn’t have a conscious awareness of why he is so uncomfortable in his own skin, but a father’s love and acceptance can go a long way towards giving him the confidence he needs to navigate through this difficult chapter. Regardless of what clothes he’s wearing, he will always be your son, and he will always need his father’s love.
This post was written in response to Ryan.
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