Cross gender behaviour of children - cross dressing
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Cross dressing is one of the cross gender behaviours that children may do. Cross dressing for children is when children want to wear the clothes that are usually worn by the other sex.
What people of each sex wear is different in different parts of the world - for example in Scotland it has been quite usual for boys to wear kilts (skirts). It also changes over time.
Sixty years or more ago it would be unusual for girls to wear jeans (boys' clothes) - but after the war there were lots of changes in what people wore. Nowadays it is more likely that girls will be allowed to dress in boys' clothes than for boys to dress in girls' clothes. Parents are often more likely to be worried if their son wants to wear dresses than if their daughter wants to wear jeans.
Cross dressing that most children do
- Children know by the time they are about three whether they are boys or girls. They can say "I am a boy" or "I am a girl".
- A child does not understand until about the age of six that he or she will always be a boy or a girl. Before that children think their sex can be changed.
- It is usual for preschool boys and girls to dress up in clothes of the other sex as a way of trying out what it is like to be a man or a woman, a father or a mother.
- Generally this kind of cross dressing is part of all of the child's play activities, and not any more important to the child than other play, and children later go on to choose to dress like others of their age and gender.
Dressing up in play like this is a healthy way for young children to learn about and think about the world they live in.
Why children may cross dress a lot
Sometimes a child will want to dress in the clothes of the other sex for a lot of the time and it will seem to be very important to him or her. Here are some of the reasons that this can happen.
- The children believe that their parents prefer children of the other sex. Perhaps there is a new baby of the other sex who seems to be special. The children then think the parents wanted the other sex and so they try to change and be what they think their parents want.
- A parent continually puts down the parent of the same sex as the child. Sometimes parents even find fault with their own sex. A mother may say that it is no fun being a woman and the father may say the same sort of thing about women. This can make a young girl wish she was a boy. Sometimes very negative things may be said about an absent father, leading to a boy not wanting to become a man.
- The child might think that the other sex has better clothes or toys. Sometimes girls get all the pretty things. Or sometimes boys may get the most exciting toys.
- The children do not have people of the same sex that they are close to, to copy the clothing and behaviour. Sometimes fathers are very busy, or working away from home or there may not be a dad in the family.
- The child has an unhappy relationship with adults of the same sex. The child might feel that the parent of the same sex does not like her or him.
- Some boys are happy about being boys but they don't like the rough play that many boys do - they want to be different.
- Some girls enjoy the adventurous play that they see boys doing, even if other girls don't want to play that way.
Sometimes children cross dress because deep down they are really not happy about being the sex they are.
When children are not happy about being the sex they are
A few children feel deeply unhappy about being a boy or being a girl.
- This can be a problem when a child continues to believe he or she is, or wishes he or she was, the other sex. Because it is not usually possible for people to change their sex (at least until they are grown up and then it is very difficult) it is very important that they can be happy with themselves as they are.
- Wishing that he or she was the other sex can start at a very early age.
- Usually if the child really wishes to be the other sex you will notice:
- persistent cross dressing especially into the primary school years
- always playing with other sex's toys (for example a boy always wanting to play with toys that are usually thought of as girls' toys, or girls wanting to play with boys' toys)
- usually drawing the other sex (for example boys usually drawing pictures of girls and women, or girls drawing pictures of boys or men)
- the child persistently saying that he or she belongs to the other sex or wishes they were
- the child persistently saying that when he or she grows up he or she will be the other sex.
- Sometimes parents worry that children who go on dressing in the clothes of the other sex over a long period of time will be homosexual.
- Even though homosexuality is widely accepted as a normal expression of sexuality for some people, parents may worry that their children will be unhappy or may feel uncomfortable about it themselves. And some people in our community do still behave in homophobic ways.
- Many children who cross dress a lot do not grow up to be transgendered, transvestite or homosexual, however some do.
- If you are worried about this, talk to a doctor or child counsellor about it.
- Note: Sometimes a child does not want to dress up in clothes of the other sex but a boy may like to take a piece of his mother's underclothes to bed with him for comfort. This is usually not because he is unhappy about his sex, but he may be feeling worried or stressed and having something of his mother's to cuddle makes him feel better. A girl may want to have something of her father's close by. Looking for the cause of the stress and dealing with it often helps with this..
What parents can do if they are worried
Remember that it is most likely the dressing up play that all children do.
If you are worried and you feel that the cross dressing is more than the play that all children do, the first thing is to have a think about what is happening in your family and if there is anything that could be making your child feel unhappy about being the sex he or she is.
- Think about how old your child is, how long it has been going on and how important it is for the child.
- Have there been any stresses in your child's life - a new baby in the family for instance?
- Does the child have an opportunity to be with loving adults of his or her own sex to learn about what it is like to be that sex?
- Has anyone been trying to stop the child from dressing up - and perhaps making him feel worse by calling him names such as "sissy" or teasing or making hurtful comments to her?
If it is just dressing up play you can be sure that this is healthy.
- Make sure there are plenty of interesting dress up clothes for both sexes.
- For a boy, get some attractive male dress up clothes such as silk superman cloaks with stars on them, circus performers, or wizards as well as fairy costumes and jewellery.
- For a girl make sure that she has clothes that are not all 'pretty dresses' or very feminine. There are female superheroes too.
If there seems to be some kind of stress, you need to think about how you can make your child feel more secure.
- Teasing or name calling never helps. Children are likely to think they are what parents or other family members call them, and then to act like that.
- Spending lots of enjoyable time with a same sex parent or a grown up friend of the same sex is important.
- Make sure a boy has the chance to play less rough games eg computer games, golf, art, drama, model making clubs etc., or that your daughter can play games that challenge her physically like soccer or gymnastics if she wants to. Many girls like computer games too.
- Notice when your child does what you want to see more of and what the child does well instead of criticising what you don't like.
If your child really wishes to be the other sex in a lasting way
If your child really wishes to be the other sex in a lasting way (many children may say this occasionally), you cannot change this and they really need your support and to know that you love them no matter what.
- Choose a school for your child where you know the staff are interested in making all children feel they are special and where they learn that to be different is OK.
- If your child is being bullied at school it may be helpful to talk to him or her about the things we do in private and those we do in public. Perhaps they could see cross dressing as something that is private at least until they are old enough and strong enough to cope with the other children. Other children can be more judgemental than adults.
- If the child is becoming really distressed some counselling may help.
- You cannot change a child who has a problem with his or her sex (transgender) so you need to remember that what children need most from their parents is unconditional love and acceptance. This is especially so if they do not fit the "norm" for the groups they move in.
- Remember that if we had a really accepting society we would care for all people no matter how different they are. Difference should not be a problem but something that makes our lives richer.
- But also remember that many poeple in our society are not as accepting of difference as we hope, so your child may need more reassurance and love from you.
For South Australian parents
- Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS)
Parenting SA Parent Easy Guides
Reachout - website for young people going through tough times
- Ehrensaft, Diane 'Gender born. gender made - raising healthy gender-nonconforming children' Publisher The Experiment 2011
Beyondblue - web-based booklet
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.