Siblings of Gender Fluid Children

When we have conversations about a gender fluid child, we have to remember that the child is a member of a family. In this post we are looking at how a gender fluid child's experience can impact their siblings.

By Matt Leahy, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist | Aug 06, 2018
Sibling Gender Fluid

In this post, I will use the terms “gender fluid” to represent a child anywhere along the transgender spectrum and “gender conforming” to mean a child whose gender matches his/her gender assigned at birth, in other words, a non-transgender or cis-gender child.

Allow me to share a story of clients of mine, who I will call Jacob and Luke. Jacob is eight years old and gender conforming. His younger brother, Luke, is four and gender fluid. His parents brought them both in to see me because Luke’s questioning about gender was causing confusion among the whole family. In this particular case, the mom was confused and not sure how to handle it. The dad was struggling with it, which I consider a pretty typical father response. The older brother, Jacob, was also struggling with it. Certainly picking up cues from his dad and elsewhere, he was derogatory towards his younger brother. He would insult him, say things like, “Stop acting like a girl”, or force him to use certain toys.

I started meeting with Jacob and his dad together. I let them tell me everything they wanted to say about Luke. They shared their concerns, questions, and fears. Then I asked them, “What do you want for Luke’s life?” They both shared that they wanted him to be happy. Then we talked through, over several sessions, what that might look like. What things make Luke happy? How can we support him in pursuing the things that make him happy? It wasn’t as easy as that –it was a process that took time and many conversations. It hasn’t been perfect. But now Jacob is Luke’s biggest ally. He protects his brother and enjoys him. Every time Luke has a new behavior, the process starts again. Recently, Luke has been sharing that he wants to be a girl, and that’s made the process challenging again for Jacob. But the important part is that Jacob is on Luke’s team and willing to participate in supporting his brother.

Today I’d like to talk about the siblings of gender fluid children. I appreciate that we are starting to talk more about children who don’t conform to society’s expectations of gender. When we have these conversations, we have to remember that the child is a member of a family, and when a child goes through this experience, it impacts all of the members of the family unit.

In families with a gender fluid child, the gender conforming siblings can sometimes take a back seat. Many parents give so much attention – positive or negative – towards their gender fluid child that siblings can feel left behind. In my experience, siblings can fall into any of these scenarios:

A sibling might feel left out because their parents spend so much time and effort on their gender fluid child.

A sibling might feel special because they are “normal” and don’t require as much attention from their parents. These kids often also feel guilty for feeling special or for being a parent’s favorite child.

A sibling might be more okay with gender fluidity than his/her parents, causing them to feel caught in the middle.

Siblings can respond to these pressures in any number of ways. A sibling might act out in order to get attention. I’ve seen siblings “out” their brother or sister without permission. I’ve heard siblings use hurtful language or become harsh with their brother or sister. A sibling might become jealous or resentful.

This is especially challenging for siblings who are too young to understand what is going on, especially if the gender fluid sibling starts making physical changes or changes their name.

What can parents do to help both their gender fluid child and their other children?

First, let me say that family therapy can help. Communication is key, and most families need additional support in working through some of these communication hurdles.

Parents need to listen and hear everything their children are thinking and feeling. This is a super stressful time for everyone in the family. Allow the gender-conforming siblings to “get it all out”. The good and the bad. Let them ask any questions they have. Answer the questions you can, and be honest when you can’t, and search for a professional who can help you.

That being said, teasing and transphobic comments CANNOT be allowed. The home has to be the one safe place that a gender fluid child can have. Parents must do everything to preserve the safety of the home environment. Questions are great; teasing is not. It is important to note that siblings can also be recipients of teasing. Some children are teased for having a gender fluid brother or sister, and they may need help or support in this area. This is a time when parents and professionals can lean into empathy building. Children can begin to understand what it feels like for themselves, then extend how that must feel for their brother or sister who is being teased or bullied. These children can learn to stand up for themselves and their sibling with equal passion.

Some families develop “trans-free” times. This is a dedicated day in which an effort is made to spend a full day not talking about any gender issues, and instead focusing on other parts of life. This can help all family members, but especially siblings. The ultimate goal is to help these siblings become the support and advocate for their brother or sister, as in the example of Jacob and Luke. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. Parents can educate siblings in age-appropriate ways about what is happening in the family, and usually need professional support in working through these feelings. With time, practice and intention, these kids can become their gender fluid sibling’s best ally.