Gender Dysphoria: An Interview with Dr. Matt Goldenberg
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Raising Resilience interviewed Dr. Matt Goldenberg, a licensed psychologist and popular trainer and clinician with over a decade of experience treating gender diverse clients. Dr. Goldenberg answered questions that came into Raising Resilience from parents and educators about navigating gender transitions with youth. The following post recaps portions of the recorded interview. You can watch the entire video here.
What is Gender Dysphoria?
In our recent interview, Dr. Goldenberg pointed out that gender dysphoria is a highly subjective label that doesn’t fit everyone and not everyone who identifies as transgender has gender dysphoria.
According to the DSM5 (5th edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), gender dysphoria refers to psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity. Though gender dysphoria often begins in childhood, some people may not experience it until after puberty or much later.
Gender Dysphoria and Transitions
Dr. Goldenberg went on to say that a diagnosis of gender dysphoria isn’t required or necessary for everyone who transitions. Gender dysphoria as a diagnosis suggests a psychological factor that has been used as an aid in seeking medical treatment but not everyone who transitions pursues treatment. For those who do, there are medical codes that are separate from the DSM codes. Discussing this with both a mental health professional and a medical professional is advisable.
Guidance for Parents
Kids seem to have a cohesive sense of their gender identity at a young age. Dr. Goldenberg said that what’s widely acknowledge is that how you express your gender changes over your lifetime based on generational and cultural differences.
Kids who transition aren’t necessarily “changing genders,” rather they are peeling away the layers to reveal who they were at their core to begin with.
This can be challenging for parents, particularly if they find out second hand. They question why they didn’t know and grieve not only the loss of who they thought their child was but the loss of who they thought they were as a parent.
Sometimes the change seems very rapid to the parent when in fact, their child has been going through a process before the parent becomes aware. It may take the child time to understand their experience and that can happen at a very young age or as an adult.
It’s a vulnerable time. LGBTQ+ youth can be sensitive to rejection and sometimes feel they are a burden to others. While it’s important for parents to process their emotions, Dr. Goldenberg's advice is that the parent's processing should happen with supportive confidants (support groups, therapists, understanding friends) rather than in front of the child. This protects the child and avoids blurring the lines between the parent and the child.
Additionally, he recommends parents find ways for their family to grow closer, stronger, and healthier through the transition. A top resource for parent is the Family Acceptance Project ® | (sfsu.edu), which integrates families with religious and spiritual concerns.
Dynamic Changes in Language
Parents are trying to keep up but even the most tuned in parents face eye rolling from youth when we get it wrong. Dr. Goldenberg acknowledged that what parents are witnessing, either at home or among their child’s friends, are experiences that parents haven't typically had. Consequently, even though they position themselves as allies, they aren’t equipped with the cultural knowledge and they don’t always get it right.
An example of this is the use of the word THEY. Over time parents came to understand that THEY used as a singular pronoun refers to an individual who has made a choice to be non-binary. This isn’t always the case. Dr. Goldenberg explained that more and more, kids are using THEY with the sentiment that it doesn’t matter or as a way to express inclusivity. It’s a way of saying "I don’t need to know or presume the person’s gender to express what I’m communicating about them."
What’s Happening at School?
Dr. Goldenberg noted that school is the place where youth try on identities, not just gender but other identities as well – musician, scientist, entrepreneur, etc. He said, "kids can try something at school without a sense of permanence because they instinctively understand that while school is a season of life, family is forever."
Sometimes a child will go by a different pronoun or name at school than they do at home. Teachers are learning that letting children lead when it comes to their identity builds trust that can open the lines of communication.
This is particularly important during this reintegration period coming out of COVID. Kids spent formative time during the pandemic in isolation and for some LGBTQ+ students, returning to school is causing significant anxiety. Conversely, some LGBTQ+ youth have been home with parents who are dismissive or have rejected them and school is a safer place for them. There’s no “one size fits all” scenario.
Either way, Dr. Goldenberg shared that it appears our country’s increase in rhetoric and divide around multiple social justice issues during social distancing has contributed to an increase in bullying at school now that kids are back on campus.
What can be done about this? Dr. Goldenberg reminds parents that social skills need to be practiced. Youth need to be together to explore, model, and practice what they find acceptable among their peers.
Is My Child Being Influenced?
While it’s true that more people are coming out than in previous generations, Dr. Goldenberg doesn’t attribute it to social media and peer influence. Of course, peers influence each other in multiple areas of life, including language and ideas. Cisgender kids are influenced in terms of how they think about gender as well. Ultimately it doesn’t take away from the validity of one’s identity or personal experience.
Is this Just a Phase?
Ultimately, Dr. Goldenberg says, the question may not matter. Even if it turns out that the child doesn’t grow into a transgendered adult, you are strengthening your bond with your child by saying,
“for this moment I’m going to witness this with you and I’m going to support you.”
Your child will be more likely to come to you about other big things in the future when they need to because you established that trust with them. Dr. Goldenberg expressed what a gift this is to children and said,
"at the end of the day, we’re just trying to figure out how to keep the porch light on for our kid."
For more info, contact www.drmattgoldenberg.com
For further perspective, visit BIMA's current exhibit, Molly Vaughan: Project 42, which honors the lives of murdered transgender and gender non-conforming Americans.
Additional Resources (provided by Dr. Goldenberg):