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.

Aug. 31, 2017 See more In-depth