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Supporting Your Child as They Explore Gender Identity

Tips for parents.

Key points

  • Allowing kids to express themselves beyond stereotypical, gendered choices can help ensure they feel comfortable in their gender identity.
  • Showing positive interest in their child's forms of gender expression and asking questions can help parents expand their comfort zones.
  • Being open with children about the diversity of people they meet will help them be more accepting and loving.

In my practice, I have seen how gender expression among children and teens has shifted. As gender expression has widened across media in recent years, children have found new ways to express and discover their identity.

Though many kids are becoming more comfortable defining their own gender through clothes, hairstyle, or persona, that doesn’t mean that their parents are always on the same page. Often, parents tell me that they don’t know how to react to their children wanting to express themselves outside of their sex identified at birth.

Parents often ask me, “What should I do if my son wants to wear makeup?” or, “Should I let my daughter dress in masculine clothes?” Many loving, caring parents simply don’t know how to raise a child that wants to live outside of the gender binary of male and female. It’s important for parents to develop a better understanding of gender identity to best support their child. Here are some common questions parents ask me about gender.

Low angle view of three kids in costumes looking through wooden railings
Source: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

How should I react when my child wants to express a different gender identity?

Allow your child to “try on'' different gender identities. My experience is that children can bounce back and forth across genders during childhood and adolescence. I have seen “tomboy” girls who hate wearing dresses and choose only to play with boys grow up to present as cisgender (their biological sex matches their gender expression). I have also seen the opposite gender expression persist into adolescence, and sometimes a desire to change their biological sex (transgender). Although long-term research on childhood gender dysphoria (feeling sadness or internal turmoil about their gender) is limited and politically controversial, in practice there are more options than ever before for kids who are questioning their gender identity.

Allow your child to use makeup or style their hair however they want. This freedom can prevent gender dysphoria. Children who are not allowed to explore beyond narrow, stereotypical gendered choices may eventually develop discomfort with their gender identity, resulting in depression and suicidal tendencies. However, there is a time and place for everything. School may not be the appropriate environment to wear excessive makeup or flashy clothing, regardless of gender identity, but these forms of expression might be appropriate in other situations, and parents should allow that.

How can a parent who is uncomfortable with the divergence of gender norms act in the best interest of their child?

Parents need to start teaching their children about gender and sexual orientation from a young age in developmentally appropriate ways. It is important to stress that gender identity is fluid and expressed in many ways (i.e. girls can wear pants and boys can wear dresses). It will also be important to explain that you can be outside the box in terms of your gender expression but still identify as the sex you were born with, such as men who like to sport long hair or wear feminine clothing but still identify as a man, or women who have very short hair and look more masculine but still identify as women. The more fluid and accepting you are as a parent, the easier it will be for your child to feel comfortable taking on both masculine and feminine traits.

What is it that makes parents, and others, generally, uncomfortable about children expressing gender outside of their biological sex?

Everyone experiences shame and we feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in. Norms differ across cultures or in varied circumstances. Since we have developed internalized gender norms, we feel deeply uncomfortable violating them. It is not even always necessary for a disapproving person or a bully to be present to feel this shame; we need only imagine another person's judgment. This becomes an internalized, personal narrative.

What advice do you have for parents so they can anticipate situations arising that may be out of their comfort zones?

Kids are notoriously unpredictable as they grow up and begin to explore their identity. As a parent, you won't be able to see everything coming, but you can control how you react to your child experimenting with sexuality or gender.

It's important for parents to unpack their own shame around gender and sexuality so they don’t pass that shame on to their children. Kids need to feel accepted by their parents to safely explore different parts of themselves. It's important to allow your child to experiment with gender so as not to encourage gender dysphoria and its negative effects. If you accept and take pride in your child, others will follow. Show positive interest in your child's forms of expression and ask questions when appropriate. Educating yourself on gender and sexuality may also make you more equipped to handle unforeseen outcomes. Stay up to date on new findings and perspectives and watch TV and movies with these themes. This will make you more comfortable expecting the unexpected.

What can parents do from day one to ensure their kids feel loved and accepted no matter what?

Give children the vocabulary to describe themselves. Teach them about pronouns, various gender identities, and the difference between gender and sexuality. This will help them understand more about themselves, just as teaching children the names of their body parts can help protect them from sexual assault.

In my practice, I’ve found that being open with children about the diversity of people they encounter will help them be more accepting and loving. Openness will also prevent a self-esteem crisis if they realize that they fall outside the box. Language and knowledge can empower them to describe their desires and experiences. I have not found that these discussions push kids towards alternative lifestyles, but rather free them from anguish and isolation.