Understanding gender identity

Children may experience a gender crisis and ask questions about their gender identity. The best way to talk to your child about gender identity is to encourage them to have confidence in who they feel and believe they are.
Children may experience a gender crisis and ask questions about their gender identity. The best way to talk to your child about gender identity is to encourage them to have confidence in who they feel and believe they are.

It's not uncommon for children to experience a gender crisis and start asking questions about their gender identity. Talking to them about it is necessary and doesn't require any special parenting skills. Generally, gender refers to the deep and intimate consciousness we have about ourselves. Children usually begin to be aware of this consciousness at a young age.  

Gender can be defined in multiple ways, such as: 

  • Sex of an individual given at birth: When a child is born, sex is determined based on the external sexual organ.  A child born with a penis is identified as male, while a child born with a vulva is identified as female. A child born with sexual organs that don't match the male or female description is identified as intersex.
  • Gender identity: Gender refers to how you understand yourself, who you believe you are, or who you were born to be. It is crucial to understand and appreciate that gender identity is complex. A person can be identified as masculine, feminine, or both, regardless of their sexual anatomy. 
  • Gender expression: This defines how your child expresses their gender to other people through their behavior, style, preferred names, and so forth. Gender expression can also be masculine, feminine or androgynous.
  • Sexual orientation: Sexual orientation defines the emotional or sexual attraction an individual exhibits to another individual. For example, some people are sexually attracted to the opposite sex. Others are attracted to the same sex, while others feel compatible with any sex.
  • Transgender: This refers to a scenario where an individual's gender identity and sex assigned at birth are not the same. For instance, a child born with male sexual anatomy may express themselves as a female and vice versa. This happens when they don't want to be defined by their sexual anatomy. This type of gender identity is sometimes referred to as two spirits to mean two different people in one body. However, two spiritedness may have relevance in a spiritual or cultural setting.
  • Gender dysphoria refers to the frustrations and suffering caused by a conflict between the sex given at birth and gender identity or expression. Some transgender children may be distressed by this identity, while others may be at peace with their bodies. You may conflict with your child if they identify as transgender at the onset of puberty when their body starts to change.

At what age does a child understand gender identity?

Your child may have questions about gender identity at any stage of life:

  • Age 2 to 3: Children know the difference between a boy and a girl at this age. They may start to see themselves as either a girl or a boy regardless of their sexual anatomy. They may even assume other genders, which are still normal and healthy.
  • Age 4 to 5: At this age, your child understands their gender identity. However, the older they grow, the more conscious they become of gender roles, expectations, and stereotypes. For example, they believe that certain toys or clothes are only for boys or girls. At this age, your child may start to express their gender more confidently, like preferring to wear dresses every day or refusing to wear dresses at all.
  • Age 6 to 7: Children are more confident about themselves and their gender identity and are less afraid of expressing their gender because they know everyone sees them as girls or boys. However, children who see themselves as different from their assigned sex at birth may experience social anxiety and distress when they realize they can't fit in either category.
  • Eight years and above: Some children will experience a gender crisis at this age where they begin to feel that they are different from the person they were identified to be at birth. During preteen or teenage years, your child may start to question their gender.

How can I help my child?

When parenting a child going through a gender crisis, the best way to help them is by encouraging them to have confidence in who they feel and believe they are. This is a stressful and frustrating situation for both the child and parent, but the first step to dealing with your child's uniqueness is promoting self-acceptance. 

As a teen, your child may become a victim of bullying, stigma, and ridicule if they do not identify as their assigned sex at birth. So how do you help your child in such a situation?

Be Your Child's Support System: Show your child that they are unique and that you love them as they are. Reassure them that you'll always be there to answer questions without judgment.

Show Patience: If they are not ready to express their feelings, don't push them to talk. Let them make peace with themselves and talk to you when they are ready. Go at their pace, focus on their emotions, listen, and then advise accordingly.

Seek Your Child's Opinion: Your child may feel offended when referred to as he or she. Ask them how they'd like to be identified. It's the first step to acceptance and letting your child know that you accept them as they are.

Find A Support Group: A local support group might help your child make peace with their gender identity sooner rather than later. It also helps minimize the frustrations and anxiety in your family if your child aligns with those who are like them, as it promotes a strong sense of belonging. 

Being part of a group of the same gender helps your child cope with peer pressure, stigma, and ridicule. Such groups offer a safe place and a support system that will boost your child's confidence tremendously.

Seek Professional Help: Finally, professional guidance and counseling from a licensed therapist or psychoanalyst can help your child overcome their insecurities, discomfort, and social anxiety and start the journey to self-acceptance. Also, a professional opinion from a doctor may put your mind at ease when you begin to appreciate that your child is both normal and unique.

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Medically Reviewed on 8/16/2021
References
SOURCES:

Caring for Kids: "Gender Identity."

Children Hospital of Philadelphia: "Talking to Kids about Gender and Sexual Orientation."

Children's Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service: "Gender dysphoria in children and adolescents is not a phase."

Healthy Children: "Gender Identity Development in Children."

Human Rights Campaign: "Transgender Children and Youth: Understanding the Basics."

Raising Children: "Gender identity, diversity and dysphoria: supporting your child," "Gender dysphoria: children and teenagers."

Young Minds: "Supporting Your Child with Gender Identity Issues."