Gender identity refers to the way a person perceives themselves—male, female, both, neither, or somewhere in-between. This is different from sexual orientation, or who a person is attracted to. All kids go through gender development, so here’s what you should know.
Building a sense of self
Children may begin to develop their gender identity as early as age 2. By their teen years, a more developed sense of gender emerges. Sometimes, this identity doesn’t conform to previously held norms.
For instance, a person might identify as a different gender than the sex they were assigned at birth. They might feel like their gender is more fluid, shifting between masculine and feminine. Or, they may not relate to any gender at all.
Medical and psychological experts agree: Gender diversity is a normal part of human life. Still, as kids grow and explore, it can be difficult for parents to know how to respond to their statements and questions.
How to support gender identity
Health experts don’t know why some people are gender diverse and others aren’t. Biology, development, and culture may all play a role.
But research is clear on one thing. Children supported in exploring and expressing their gender identity are the most likely to become healthy, happy adults.
When your child brings up gender:
- Accept and support. Respond to gender concerns and statements with affirmation. Tell them you love them, no matter what.
- Celebrate diversity. Expose your child to books, movies, and other materials with a variety of role models. Include people who are gender diverse.
- Answer with questions. When it comes to others’ gender identity, let children guide. Ask what they notice and how it’s different from what they expected. Use inclusive, age-appropriate language to describe the spectrum of gender.
- Encourage self-expression. Talk with your child about the clothing, hairstyle, and room decor they’d prefer. Don’t assume based on gender norms.
- Watch for warnings. Any child can experience anxiety, depression, or other mental-health issues. Those who suppress their gender identity or are bullied have a greater risk. Seek help if your child seems to be struggling.
Your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional can help guide you, and your child, on gender identity. Looking for more resources? PFLAG offers support to those who are gender diverse, along with their parents, families, and allies.