Gender identity: supporting children
For some children and teenagers in all cultures, their gender identity is different from the sex they were given at birth. These children do well with support from parents, family and the community.
- valuing and loving your child for who they are
- talking with your child about their experiences and needs
- helping your child affirm their gender and tell others about it if they choose to.
This support will help your child feel a sense of belonging and have a positive outlook. It will also boost your child’s mental health and self-esteem.
When your child tells you about their gender identity
If your child tells you they identify as a gender that’s different from the sex they were given at birth, it might seem sudden to you. But your child might have been thinking about it and preparing to tell you for a long time. Your child might also find it very hard to talk with you about it.
It’s important to show your child that you love and value them for who they are. You can also reassure your child that you’ll support them, just as you would with any other issue.
It can be tempting to think that this is a phase. Gender identity can change and your child might still be working out how they identify themselves, but it’s important to accept the way your child feels about their gender identity as it is now. One way you can do this is by using the name and pronouns your child chooses.
Trying to change a child’s mind about their gender can be damaging, as can stopping a child from expressing themselves. Children who aren’t accepted by family and friends can become withdrawn, anxious or depressed. Teenagers are also more likely to self-harm or have suicidal thoughts.
When you want to raise gender identity with your child
If you’re wondering about your young child’s gender identity and you’re not sure how to start a conversation, you could start by asking them about how they feel about being a boy or a girl. There are also some helpful books you could read together, like The gender fairy or My princess boy.
If you have an older or teenage child, you could talk with them about movies or books with gender-diverse or transgender characters, like Luna or Parrotfish.
You could also ask your child questions like ‘Are things OK with you at the moment?’ or ‘Would you like to talk with me about anything?’
It’s a good idea to reassure your child that you love them, no matter what. You could say, ‘I’m here to listen and talk about anything that’s worrying you, even things you think I won’t understand. We can work things out together’.
Talking with your child about their gender identity
You can ask your child questions to help you understand what they’re experiencing. For example, you could ask how long they’ve been feeling this way, or whether they’ve spoken to anyone else about it.
It’s also important to listen to what being gender diverse means to your child. For example, don’t assume it means your child wants to wear certain clothes or wants to affirm their gender by transitioning medically.
You can also ask your child how you can help. You might ask, ‘What help do you need right now?’ And you could ask whether your child needs you to advocate for something they need, like using a different toilet at school or wearing a different school uniform.
Talking with your child about puberty
Depending on your child’s age and stage of development, you might want to talk together about puberty and physical changes. If your child can see you’re comfortable talking about these issues, your child will feel more comfortable too. If your child asks questions that you’re unsure about, talking about it together with your GP can help.
Your child might feel uncomfortable or worry about going to classes about puberty, particularly if the classes divide into boys and girls. If your child agrees, it can help to talk to class facilitators or teachers about how they can make your child feel more included.
Telling other people about gender identity
You could also talk about whether your child wants to tell grandparents, friends and teachers. It’s important that your child decides who they want to tell about being gender diverse.
If your child doesn’t want to let others know about their gender identity, it’s important to protect and respect your child’s privacy. But sometimes it might help your child if certain people know – for example, the school principal. It’s good to talk with your child about when it might help them for people to know about their gender identity.
Supporting your child to affirm their gender
Your child might choose to affirm their gender by dressing and identifying as the gender they know themselves to be. Your child might change their name, pronoun, hairstyle or clothes. For gender-diverse children and teenagers who have gender dysphoria, affirming their gender can help reduce distress.
Talking with your child about what they want and what they’re comfortable with will help them. For example, you could talk with your child about whether they want to affirm their gender just in some environments like home or also in other environments like at school and sports activities as well.
It might also be good to talk with your child about staying safe when they’re out in public, especially if this is something you’re worried about.
Affirming your gender is sometimes called social transitioning.
If your child is affirming their gender: working with schools and clubs
If your child wants to affirm their gender at school or elsewhere, you’ll need to talk to your child’s preschool or school and sports or other clubs. This can make it less likely your child will be bullied or discriminated against.
Many schools have experience with students who are gender diverse, and all schools can get information and resources about supporting your child. Both single sex and co-educational schools can accommodate gender-diverse students.
You’ll need to discuss practical issues like:
- school uniform
- sports teams
- use of toilets or change rooms.
It’s also a good idea to ask:
- whether staff have had gender training
- whether they have policies and procedures to manage gender affirmation
- what anti-bullying policies are in place
- what policies there are about telling other students or parents
- what policies they have to protect your child’s privacy
- how the school or organisation will monitor or manage effects on your child’s siblings.
Settings like local sports clubs might know less about gender diversity. You might need to give them resources or information about how other organisations meet the needs of gender-diverse children. The Australian Human Rights Commission has some useful guidance for including transgender and gender-diverse people in sport.
If your child is starting at a new school or activity and has already affirmed their gender, they might not want people to know. In this situation, it’s a good idea to talk with your child about how they’ll keep it private, and what they’ll do if other children find out. But it’s important to talk with your child about who you might need to tell and in what situations.
Gender identity, gender dysphoria and mental health
Children and teenagers who are gender diverse might experience gender dysphoria. They’re also more likely than their cisgender peers to experience anxiety or depression, have suicidal thoughts or harm themselves. This is even more likely if they face barriers to expressing their gender identity, or have negative experiences like bullying, stigma or discrimination.
The start of puberty can also be a particularly difficult time for gender-diverse children as their bodies begin to change in ways they don’t want.
But gender-diverse children who have affirmed their gender have similar self-worth and levels of depression as their cisgender peers.
Speaking to your child’s GP is a good place to start if your child is having mental health problems. You don’t need to find a specialist in gender identity or gender dysphoria to start with if you’re worried about depression or anxiety. But if your GP isn’t familiar with or supportive of the needs of children who want to affirm their gender or who have gender dysphoria, it’s OK to find someone else.
A mental health clinician experienced in gender dysphoria in young people can also help your child work through their gender identity.
You can also promote good mental health for your younger child and good mental health for your teenage child by helping your child manage feelings, being loving and supportive, and encouraging physical activity.
If your child tells you they keep thinking about self-harm or suicide, seek urgent professional help. Call Lifeline on 131 114, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also call 000 or go straight to a hospital emergency department.