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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Child's Curiosity

Q. I am a 27-year-old single parent raising a 7-year-old son in my parent's home. His father has never been a part of his life but he has had male figures around including my fiancÚ. My son has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and epilepsy.

My son went to my parent's room, closed and locked the door and proceeded to try on my mother's bras and underwear. My father caught him doing this and explained that boys don't do this. I then spoke to my son and explained he wasn't in trouble but asked a series of questions to find out if this was something he'd done in the past or was interested in exploring further.

He was a bit embarrassed but said he was just being silly and that he didn't want to wear those things. Should I chalk this up to pure curiosity or should this be something I keep my eye on? I have searched everywhere but I can't seem to find information about this except in teens--which doesn't help because I know how teenagers sometimes like to explore their sexuality. Can you provide research or other literature regarding this?

A. It sounds like you handled this issue very responsibly. I would not make much of a single episode of this cross-dressing behavior. It may indicate the early onset of a more serious problem, but it may simply represent curiosity and playfulness. Transvestic fetishism (TF) is a condition in which cross-dressing is associated with sexually-arousing fantasies, often accompanied by masturbation. The person's basic sexual orientation is usually heterosexual, but he tends to have few sexual partners and may have engaged in occasional homosexual acts.

Some individuals with TF also have gender dysphoria--a persistent discomfort with their biological sex or male identity. Cross-dressing (transvestism) in individuals who later develop TF does usually begin in childhood or early adolescence--but I think it is premature to conclude that your son is heading in this direction, based on what you have written. If your son repeats this behavior and/or expresses feelings of dissatisfaction with his gender--for example, "I hate being a boy! I was really meant to be a girl!"--then I would recommend an evaluation by a child psychologist or psychiatrist. Any major change in his overall mental or behavioral functioning (e.g., worsening school performance, increased irritability or aggression) should also prompt a re-evaluation.

Since your son has a diagnosis of ADHD, I presume he already has a physician involved with his care; if that physician is a psychiatrist, it would make sense to have this discussion with him or her. In the mean time, you can certainly let your son know that you are available to listen to any concerns or worries he may have, and keep your interventions supportive and non-judgmental.

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January 2004

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