Children and gender identity: Supporting your child

Understand the importance of talking with your child about gender identity and expression — and how to get the conversation started.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If your child has questions about gender identity or gender expression, you’ve probably got questions, too. Find out what you can do to help and support your child.

What are the basics of gender identity?

A person’s sex assigned at birth, gender identity — the internal sense of being male, female, neither or both — gender expression and sexual orientation are separate things. They can happen in many combinations. Having a particular sex assigned at birth or gender expression doesn’t mean a person has any specific gender identity or sexual orientation.

Is your child transgender?

In many cases children will say how they feel, strongly identifying as a boy or girl — and sometimes — neither or both. While children might go through periods of insisting that they are the opposite gender of their birth sex, if they continue to do so it was likely never a phase.

Most children typically develop the ability to recognize and label stereotypical gender groups, such as girl, woman and feminine, and boy, man and masculine, between ages 18 and 24 months. Most also categorize their own gender by age 3 years. However, because gender stereotypes are reinforced, some children learn to behave in ways that bring them the most reward, despite their authentic gender identity. At ages 5 to 6 years, most children are rigid about gender stereotypes and preferences. These feelings typically become more flexible with age.

Gender identity and expression are related, yet different concepts. A child’s gender identity isn’t always indicative of one particular gender expression, and a child’s gender expression isn’t always indicative of the child’s gender identity. Diversity in gender expressions and behaviors might include:

  • Certain bathroom behavior, such as a girl insisting on standing up to urinate
  • An aversion to wearing the bathing suit of the child’s birth sex
  • A preference for underwear typically worn by the opposite sex
  • A strong desire to play with toys typically assigned to the opposite sex

Don’t rush to label your child. Over time your child will continue to tell you what feels right.

How can you support a gender-nonconforming or transgender child?

If your child is persistent about gender identity feelings, listen. Talk to your child and ask questions without judgment. To support your child:

  • Don’t assume your child’s gender expression is a form of rebellion or defiance.
  • Don’t prevent your child from expressing gender in public or at family activities to avoid it making you or someone else uncomfortable.
  • Don’t try to shame or punish the gender expression out of your child.
  • Don’t block your child’s access to gender-diverse friends, activities or resources.
  • Don’t blame your child for experiencing discrimination.
  • Don’t belittle or ridicule your child’s gender expression or allow others in your family to do so.

Speak positively about your child to your child and to others. Show your admiration for your child’s identity and expression of it. By allowing your child to demonstrate preferences and share them, you’ll encourage a positive sense of self and keep the lines of communication open.

Also, try to let go of specific fantasies you might have had about your child’s future and, instead, focus on what brings your child joy and security. A child living with supportive parents and caregivers is likely to be a happier child.

What kind of health care does your child need?

Your child needs a respectful, knowledgeable doctor. Talk to your child’s doctor about your child’s gender identity and behaviors and ask for help. Your doctor might recommend working with a specialist. If you’re having trouble finding a doctor with appropriate training, seek a recommendation from a support group.

Talking to a therapist also is critical. Ask your child’s doctor to help you find a counselor with training in transgender needs to work with your child.

What is gender exploration and social transitioning?

A social transition is a reversible step in which a child lives partially or completely in the preferred gender role by changing hairstyles, clothing, pronouns and, possibly, names. Limited research suggests that social transitioning might help ease a child’s depression and anxiety.

It’s important for parents and children to determine the extent of the transition, to whom to disclose it, and how to handle challenges such as which bathroom or locker room to use. You’ll also need to consider whether transitioning at school or in the community will endanger your child. Seek the advice of a social or advocacy agency to help you make a safety assessment.

How can you advocate for your child?

You might worry that your transgender child will be shunned and experience discrimination or physical harm at school or in your community. To prevent these problems and advocate for your child:

  • Connect with other families who have a gender-diverse child. This can help reduce any isolation you and your child might be experiencing. Look for an in-person or online support group.
  • Work with your child’s school and teachers. Talk to them about how to stop or prevent bias and bullying before it starts. Ask for gender training to be included in staff development. Come up with a plan for how your child will be addressed in school, which bathroom your child will use, and how to interpret rules about participation in teams, clubs and overnight activities. Choose whether you want to share information about your child’s gender identity with other parents.

    If your child experiences harassment or discrimination at school and the school system fails to address the problem, take action. Research your legal options and talk to school administrators about them.

  • Reach out within your community. Work with local institutions to make them safer for gender-diverse and transgender children. Also, consider supporting or volunteering for gender organizations to learn more and help others learn.

Whatever your child’s gender identity, do your homework and seek appropriate care. Showing your love and acceptance will also help your child feel comfortable in his or her body and in the world.

Jan. 16, 2021

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