Blog 97. Parenting: Did you know that most gender issues arise in childhood and particularly during the Oedipal Stage?
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Gender identity is according to Wikipedia, one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – is how individuals perceive themselves and how they may choose to call themselves. Ones’ gender identity can be the same or different from the sex assigned at birth.
I find this a rather exciting time when gender in society is being challenged, because after all, it is the person not their sex or gender that we should see, not their colour or nationality – but who the person actually is, that we should love unconditionally, that we should employ and so on.
However, as a relationship therapist I have also seen the other side – the side that involves clients struggling to find their identity or indeed a meaning to why they feel the way they do.
For some accepting who they are, or transition into who they want to be, can be a confusing time often stemming way back in childhood. For some it’s not a problem. It works for them and they report being happier than ever before. For others it is not.
But let me explain:
Some while ago, I observed a transgender shopping in a woman’s underwear department. I recognised her, as she is local to my area. However seeing her there dressed in a wig and in unfashionable clothes, I found myself wondering why anyone would want to look like their unfashionable mother. This is not the sort of thing that usually goes through my mind. But then the penny dropped.
I was immediately reminded of a few clients who had struggled with father and mother issues and over time it seemed that the issues often lay in Freud’s Oedipal stage.
I have already written about the importance of understanding this phase of child development which Freud pinpointed to rather accurately. (In Blog 38 and 39 and in the previous Blog I wrote about Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal Phase and you may remember me writing that if there is only one thing you ever get to know about psychology, it should be Freud’s Oedipal Stage. I explained why, and I suggest you go back and read it, as it will certainly give you a deeper understanding of the psychology behind much of our behaviour).
And when children reach the age between say 3-6, this is when they begin to investigate their own sexuality and that of their parents. This includes the relationship parents have with one another. This is when they try to make sense of how the ‘mummy and daddy thing’ works – who belongs to whom, and so on.
But also, this is when children begin to work out who they are – boy or girl, and how this relates to either mummy or daddy. This is when they begin to work out how mummy or daddy relates to them – as either a girl or a boy. In doing so, they often also begin decoding the conscious or unconscious messages received about what is expected from them or who mummy and daddy loves most – girls or boys.
And sometimes instead of sufficiently working through this stage, some children can get stuck especially if they receive mixed messages or, if indeed one or the other parent is either emotionally or physically absent – as pointed out in the previous blog.
But what does this really mean?
During this phase, a child begins to work out things out about their sexuality as well as, how powerful they can be or which parent they can control. In working this out, a little girl may flirt with her daddy or a little boy may hold mummy’s hand just a little tighter or a little longer than usual. At the same time they may find themselves a boyfriend or girlfriend, as they test or act out what they’ve observed mummy and daddy do. It’s usually also at this point that children play the game of, ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. And you may even find children kissing and holding hands.
Sometimes however this ‘acting out’ phase can go deeper.
Power games are usually worked through easily enough and normally with the help of both parents, a child is assisted in their quest for relationship knowledge as they gain a better understanding of the roles that a daddy and a mummy play.
But unfortunately, this is not always the case.
If a child, in trying to get mummy or daddy’s attention, somehow feels that by dressing or becoming that person, they may get the other parent’s attention, they may consequently become what we call fixated or obsessed with playing out this role – but unfortunately they can also become stuck emotionally.
But what does this mean?
In wanting to take on the role of either their mother or their father, what should remain as an unconscious working though ‘who belongs to whom’, some become fixated on the actual role itself, hoping to become that parent – in order to get daddy or mummy’s attention or to find out what it is about mummy that mesmerises daddy or visa versa. This is when a child may begin to carefully study how a parent dresses and how they behave so they can emulate and copy them.
Or, if they believe that as, say as a boy, their father prefers girls, then they may try to behave or dress like the girls daddy so adores. This would of course be similar for girls emulating and dressing like boys, if they feel this is who daddy will love and appreciate more.
And we know that for many centuries, many children have felt that a parent would have preferred a child of the opposite sex and in order to please a parent, many try to become the child the parent had hoped for.
But also, because the particularly age of between 3-6, is also a stage where children, especially girls, do fantasise about being like mummy and dressing like mummy, often this period is thought of just ‘a phase a child is going through’. It can also be rather sweet to see a little girl walking in her mummy’s high heel shoes with lipstick drawn all over her face and pearls strung around her neck.
But some kids don’t grow out of this stage. Some can remain stuck and fixated.
But it’s not just about how a child dresses, it’s also about how they identify with one or the other parent and in doing so, they can become fixated on that identity.
And even though the fantasy of that identity, with the creativity of dressing up and all that it involves, can seem like fun – it can become embedded into the personality of some children. And depending on how deep the emotion needs are, a particular fixation can become buried in the very psyche or indeed in the unconscious.
Then over time, and as the person matures, this phase may be continued, expressed through dress or behaviour, and so on. And it may even be considered as a natural part of a child’s personality. And it is.
But how does this occur?
The fixation can become internalised and as a result, it can become part of a child’s emotional makeup. Eventually there can be no distinguishable difference between the real or the fantasy.
Consequently, and if this is not addressed or understood, the child may continue behaving according to how they perceive they will be loved right, into adulthood.
This can however, become very worrying for some parents, especially if a boy remains stuck, still wanting to dress in mummy’s clothing or a girls starts dressing in boys clothing.
In certain societies this may even be entirely unacceptable: A child may begin to seem different and this may either be accepted or rejected within the family or a society. As a result, this can become frightening for a child as they sense that they’re being told that there is something wrong with them. This can be traumatic and it can cause massive emotional problems. Not being accepted can be very hurtful and it can result in all sorts of emotional problems from self-worth and self-harm issues to depression and even suicide. And sadly, this could also lead to bullying and excommunication within a community or indeed the family.
And many have experienced horrendous violence, taunting and teasing. And this can lead to further depression and feelings of victimisation.
Often this occurs, because parents are often are unaware of the mixed messages they may send their children. But also there is often no knowledge of psychology or in particular and once again – there is no understanding of Sigmund Freud ‘s Oedipal Stage and how it pertains to child development. Often the stage is either forgotten, or it just doesn’t get taken into account and as a result, many areas often remain unnecessarily perplexing or mystifying – especially for the families involved.
And sadly too, once adulthood is reached and a child leaves home they may again be confronted with society’s expectations and often many have to hide their predispositions. And many have to keep things secret even from their partners.
But I have also witnessed for example, men who have gone on to marry motherly types – often in caring positions or indeed women in areas requiring authority. Sometimes this is because a parent was either emotionally or physically unavailable. But most importantly, if the Oedipal stage had not been worked through, this then provides a further opportunity to continue working through the unfinished or incomplete stage. Unfortunately relationships are not a form of therapy, so the fantasy that a healing might take place is often thwarted, leaving some feeling very disappointed and let down.
However in some relationships, two people may collude or they may find that whatever one another has to offer is enough. Many can be happily married but others may find it unnerving or even impossible to live with, especially if they never knew that their partner was going to lean in directions that they may find uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this can then lead to a rather sad outcome for both partners and the fixated partner may continue to feel isolated, lonely and possibly never understood.
But sometimes when an adult signals and declares that they have decided to change gender or to change their sexual preferences this can come as a shock to family and friends.
Often I have witnessed that this sudden decision as it were, is not so sudden at all. Sometimes the feelings and desires have just sat dormant, and as I keep saying – buried feelings will out but when, is anyone’s guess. And usually once the root is investigated, childhood issues, and either father or mother issues emerge. Either a parent was either emotionally or physically absent – but this I addressed in the previous blog so I won’t repeat it here.
However, I suggest that in all these cases, an understanding of the past is investigated as this often provides a crucial understanding and self-knowledge. Sometimes therapy too can also provide a forum enabling the unhealed wounds of the fixation and fantasy to be fully understood and new choices reached that involve a deeper acceptance of any chosen identity.
And once again the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard words remain important. He wrote, “In Life one is condemned to live life forwards and to understand it backwards.” Wisdom indeed.
© 2018 Deidré Wallace All rights reserved.
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