Learning about gender is a normal part of growing up. At around 2 years old, children start to notice people are different genders. By age 6, most children will identify themselves as male or female. As part of learning about gender, some girls want to try typically male activities like playing football or going fishing with dad. Some boys want to try typically female activities like wearing makeup like mommy or playing Disney princess dress up with their sister. These behaviors mean your child is developing normally and exploring their place in the world.
Responding to your child’s questions or concerns about gender or sex can be uncomfortable or confusing. Many parents aren’t prepared for questions about why boys and girls are expected to act differently or why some clothes are for boys and some are for girls. It’s normal for these topics to bring up surprising feelings, unquestioned beliefs, and worries. Here are some tips to help have those conversations.
Create a safe space
Tip 1: Your child coming to you with a question or concern is a good thing. This means you have created a relationship where your child feels like they can come to you for support and guidance about anything. You want them to come to you or another trusted adult for help instead of struggling through it on their own or turning to their friends or online for advice. Be the guide they need you to be.
Tip 2: When your child comes to you to talk about their feelings, they are coming to you for help figuring out what these feelings mean and what they should do, not permission to have them. Telling your child their feelings are wrong or bad does not change their experience, it tells them they can’t come to you for support and guidance.
Tip 3: Parental love and support is one of the most valuable things a child can have. Children who know their parents love them for who they are, and are there to provide boundaries and structure for them, do much better in all situations, including struggles with gender.
Try it out
You can discuss as a family what things you can try. They will feel loved and supported and you might get some fun stories and super cute pictures to share later. Some children have more persistent desires to act like someone of the other gender, may ask their parents to use different names or pronouns, and get really upset when their parents don’t support them. Doctors call this Gender Dysphoria of Childhood. If these children feel supported by their parents, they continue to develop normally and only 15% will still have gender concerns after puberty. These children never need any medical treatment, but some will benefit from mental health support.
Tip 4: If your child only wants to wear clothes associated with the other sex, only wants a “boy” or “girl” haircut, or wants to try out a new name, listen to them and help them try it out. If they get bored of it or change their mind, then the experience has not harmed them and they know you love them and they can come to you for anything. If the change persists and your child seems much happier with the new clothes, haircut, or name, then your child is much happier and they still know you love them and they can come to you for anything. Sure, it might be a little awkward to explain to other adults, but isn’t your child’s happiness and development worth a little awkwardness?
Only 15% of children with persistent gender concerns in childhood will still have gender concerns after puberty starts. On the other hand, gender concerns that persist past the beginning of puberty, or come up for the first time after your child starts puberty, are much less likely to go away.
Before puberty, boys’ and girls’ bodies look very similar. After puberty, the difference between the sexes can become much more obvious. Developing breasts and having periods can be very distressing for someone who sees themselves as a boy, whereas deepening of the voice, growth of the genitals, and hair everywhere can be distressing for someone who sees themselves as a girl.
This distress can lead to problems like eating disorders, substance use, anxiety, depression, and suicidal behavior. These problems are the most common among teens who have not told anyone about how they feel and are struggling alone. These lonely struggles can even lead to thoughts of suicide. Between 30-70% of LGBTQ adolescents report a history of wishing they were dead or thinking their families would be better off if they were dead. Over half of LGBTQ adults report attempting suicide at least once during adolescence. Sometimes this lonely struggle can go on for months or years before a teen decides to disclose how they feel to family and friends or “come out.” The risks of substance use, depression, and suicide go way down if teens feel accepted and supported after they disclose their feeling to family and friends or “come out.” The risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts is 3-7 times higher among teens who are rejected by family or friends after coming out.
Tip 5: When your teenager “comes out” to you it may seem very sudden, but it is often the result of months or years of private struggle by your teen. Remember, they are coming to you for support and guidance, not permission to have their feelings.
Tip 6: “Coming out” is a brave act for your child. They trust and hope you will still love them after they tell you about who they are and how they feel, but they’re also terrified you may reject them and exclude them from your life. If they come out, tell them you love and support them. Love. Nothing else matters in that moment.
There are many ways to support someone after they come out and start to openly explore their gender. The expert on how to help your teen explore his or her gender is your teen. Try to do the things they ask. Many teens ask friends, family, and their school to use a new name and pronouns for them. This has no permanent effects for your teen but is a powerful way to show support. Among transgender teens, the risk of suicidal ideation goes down by more than 20% and the risk of suicide attempts goes down for every additional environment (like home, school, work or sports teams) where they can use their new name. Using the name and pronouns your child requests is more effective at decreasing the risks of depression and suicidality among transgender adolescents than antidepressants. Wearing different clothes, getting a different haircut, or using makeup can also make your child feel more authentic and affirmed.
These changes allow your teen to gain experience living in a new gender without making a permanent commitment. If they find out that life in a different gender doesn’t fit or is not what they imagined, they can go back without any permanent consequences. If they try out life in the new gender and they seem much happier, then you’ve helped them feel supported and they are much happier. That’s a good thing.
Tip 7: Using the name and pronouns your teen asks you to use is a powerful sign of support for your teen, decreases problems with mood and suicidal behavior, and let’s your child gain real world experience living in a new gender without any permanent negative consequences.
Some adolescents with gender concerns find talking to a therapist with experience in Gender Dysphoria to be helpful in dealing with transition, exploring gender, and dealing with transphobia and negative reactions from others. Your medical provider or local parent support groups should be able to make some suggestions.
Some teens discuss medicine treatment like hormones and testosterone therapy with their doctor. These treatments can offer benefits, but also have side effects or permanent effects.
Tip 8: Supporting your teen does not mean giving them everything they want. It is your responsibility as a parent to balance the risks and benefits of anything your child is doing. If you do not think your child is ready for hormonal treatment or the risks of other treatments, then it is your responsibility to protect them from their own desires. However, when saying “no” to something, try to also share what you can do to support your teen. “I am not ready to let you start testosterone because I am worried about the permanent effects, but I can call you Johnny, use he/him pronouns, and fight to get your school to do the same,” is much easier to accept than “No testosterone.”
These tips have one common theme, love. No matter what path is taken, if it is one with love, it will be a better journey together.