Gender non-conforming children: Promoting well-being and mental health in schools

Here’s the thing about bullying: it reaches into the places where we feel most ashamed, and holds our secrets up for everybody to ridicule. Bullies seek to humiliate and shame the target with cruelty, while the bullies’ sidekicks laugh gleefully. Tragically, people who have been bullied often think that this is their individual, specific failure, and so they usually blame themselves. Often, everybody else blames them, too.

I’ve learnt in my work as a psychotherapist that, if the target is to heal, they need to learn not to buy into the bullies’ version of events. A good deal of my work with targets of bullying is to support them as they come to realise that there is actually nothing wrong with them: it was the bully and the sidekicks who were wrong all along.  

The child who has been bullied often feels deep down that they have been viewed, judged and then stamped with the label “not good enough”. The anguish of being abandoned and humiliated by their peers often leaves many long-term scars, and their trust in other people’s goodness may ultimately be destroyed. The target of the bullying can become very secretive about the bullying, often not admitting what happened to anyone – not their friends, their partners or even themselves. The experience is simply too painful to articulate. That’s how deep it goes.

Bullies tend to exist in packs, seeking out any type of difference as they hunt for prey. The target might be judged to be too tall, too small, too clever, too stupid – the details don’t really matter. The only thing that matters is that the pack animals scent the vulnerability drawn from some tiny difference, and attack. Gender non-conforming children are much more likely to be bullied than their counterparts, as they are often perceived as different.. When a gender non-conforming child breaks out from the strict stereotyping – perhaps by getting a short haircut, or acting in a notable manner – time starts ticking. The bullies may well be getting ready to pounce. Until the day the bullying begins, some kids may not have realised that they were different: perhaps a girl is judged to “walk like a boy”; perhaps a boy is perceived to “talk like a girl”. They can suddenly feel very frightened and disorientated when it’s brought to their attention that they have been judged to be a good target by a pack of bullies who want to destroy them.

Despite all the Pride Flags, despite the extreme emphasis on the LGBT acronym, and despite all the policies on inclusivity, homophobia is unbelievably rampant in many schools today. For a range of reasons, many of which seem to relate to marketing, children are often expected to live by increasingly strict and stereotypical gender conforming rules. Boys are expected to have short hair and conventionally masculine clothes; girls are expected to have long hair, make-up and conventionally feminine clothes. And if these kids choose to break any of the very narrow stereotyping that is being offered to them, they are often quickly categorised as “trans” or “non-binary” or “lesbian”. These categories come with a strict hierarchy: trans is the coolest and most interesting; gay and non-binary are in the boring middle; and lesbian is usually dismissed and derided.

Although it might be perceived as kind, it is not helpful for the long-term health of a developing adolescent if the school celebrates the student’s identity, as this can inadvertently concretise and foreclose further identity exploration by the student. The process of identity exploration usually takes place between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, at the same time as the adolescent brain is continuing to form. There is little value in focusing on one identity over another during this process; free exploration is the more progressive way to handle this. This is why Genspect recommends a neutrally supportive culture, which neither celebrates nor condemns the young person, but instead holds space for the young person to develop their identity without undue external influencing factors.

Prevention works better than cure when schools are handling bullying. It is valuable if a school can welcome gender non-conformity without emphasising identities based upon gender stereotypes and categories. Schools can do this with history projects that focus on gender non-conforming people, such as Joan of Arc or Stormé DeLarverie, art projects exploring the work of artists such as Grayson Perry or Frida Kahlo, or music projects that celebrate gender non-conformity, with musicians such as Grace Jones or David Bowie.

As a psychotherapist, it has often struck me that internalised homophobia can sometimes cause more heartache for the gender non-conforming child than the accompanying bullying itself. Schools can address this by taking some time to ensure that some positive gay and lesbian role models, either famous or perhaps closer to home, are available for a young person to learn from, perhaps helping their own unique identity to evolve. Self-acceptance is a gift for life that can never be underestimated.

Cyberbullying is a significant challenge for schools: while the problems may have started in the school day, the bullying behaviour takes place online, and late at night. The fallout from cyberbullying is so extreme that it is worth schools taking the time to teach students what is and is not appropriate online behaviour. This will help students see through fake identities, learn to be savvy enough not to post potentially embarrassing pictures, and know never to join in on a pile-on.

Schools can also cultivate a culture of upstanding, by introducing English, history, PSHE, art and music projects that explore issues related to bystanding and upstanding. An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause – particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. Bystanders, on the other hand, are those who see what’s going on, know it’s wrong, perhaps even wring their hands in concern, but tend not to do anything that will actually help the target. Research suggests that 90% of students don’t like to see bullying, yet students only speak up 20% of the time.

Bystanders have more power than they realise, as they are present at 85% of bullying incidents. Sadly, however, they tend to inaccurately perceive themselves as powerless. The good news about bullying is that an estimated 75% to 90% of kids don’t bully; the bad news is that these kids are prepared to act as upstanders only 20% of the time. Upstanders speak up, sometimes by simply smiling kindly at the target, or by inviting the target to sit with them; sometimes by moving the conversation away from the bullying towards a healthier subject.

Schools can help. They can celebrate true diversity. They can prevent unnecessary foreclosure on identities. They can create a culture of upstanding, and show how the school community can be welcoming and accepting. While this takes time, it is perhaps the most worthwhile initiative any teacher – or school – can undertake.

Stella O’Malley is the author of Bully-Proof Kids, which will be published in the UK on March 31 by Swift Press. This book aims to help families find effective ways to cope when their child has been targeted by bullies. She is also the founder and director of Genspect, and a psychotherapist who works with gender non-conforming children and their families.

A shorter version of this article is available from Merched Cymru for their webinar on Sex Education in Wales on Saturday 19th March at 10.30am.

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