Gender identity and your child

Gender identity is your child’s sense of who they are – male, female, both or neither.

Your child might identify as cisgender. This is when your child’s gender identity is male or female, and it’s the same as the sex your child was given at birth.

Or your child might identify as gender diverse, which includes:

  • transgender – your child’s gender identity doesn’t match the sex given at birth
  • non-binary – your child’s gender identity is neither male nor female, or it’s a blend of male and female
  • gender fluid – your child moves between gender identities
  • agender – your child doesn’t identify with any gender.

Or your child might use another term to identify their gender. And your child’s gender identity might change over time. This is part of how your child discovers and understands who they are.

Most children grow up thinking of themselves as a girl or a boy and don’t question their gender. But some children and teenagers in all cultures identify as a gender that’s different from the sex they were assigned at birth.

How children and teenagers express gender

Gender expression is how your child shows their gender. This might be through their name, clothes, behaviour, hairstyle or voice.

Almost all children begin expressing their gender identity at around 2-3 years old. They do this in the way they talk about themselves and through the clothes they choose. Children can be very firm about their gender from an early age. For example, toddlers often proclaim ‘I’m a boy!’ or ‘I’m a girl!’

Many gender diverse children also express their gender identity at around 2-3 years old. They can be firm about their gender too. For example, a child might get angry when people call them a boy or girl, refuse to wear particular clothes or say that they’re a different gender.

Other gender-diverse children might start to talk about their gender identity being different when they’re at primary school. For some, this happens after puberty, and some might not know until they’re well into adulthood.

It’s normal for all children and teenagers to experiment with gender roles. For example, your daughter might refuse to wear skirts or dresses, or your son might want to play ‘mum’.

For most children and teenagers, experimenting with gender doesn’t mean that they’re gender diverse or transgender. Most children go on to feel comfortable with the gender they were given at birth.

Gender dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is when your child feels distressed because their gender identity differs from the sex they were given at birth. This distress might affect their school or home life.

Not all gender diverse children have gender dysphoria. Some children are comfortable identifying as a gender that’s different from what they were assigned at birth. And being gender diverse or experimenting with gender expression isn’t a problem unless your child seems upset or distressed about their gender.

But some children do experience gender dysphoria, especially if they experience bullying, stigma or discrimination at school or other places.

Young children: signs of gender dysphoria

If you think your young child has gender dysphoria, there are some signs you can look out for.

Your child might:

  • insist they’re a different gender – for example, they might say ‘I’m a girl, not a boy’
  • get upset or angry if they’re called a boy or girl, or brother or sister, or anything else that’s gender specific
  • show signs of anxiety like not doing as well as usual at school, having tantrums, or not wanting to take part in usual activities. These signs might be more obvious in settings that are gendered, like school or sports activities
  • go to the toilet in a way that’s associated with a different gender – for example, your gender-diverse child who was assigned as female at birth might stand up to urinate
  • ask you to call them by a different name and use a different pronoun like he, she or they
  • ask questions about their gender – for example, ‘Will my vagina turn into a penis?’ or ‘Can I be a daddy instead of a mummy when I grow up?’
  • not like the physical signs of their sex or want those that match a different gender – for example, your child might say, ‘Can the doctor take my penis off?’ or ‘I don’t want to grow breasts when I grow up’.

Teenagers: signs of gender dysphoria

If you think your teenage child has gender dysphoria, there are some signs you can look out for.

Your child might:

  • have a strong desire to be a different gender or tell you that they feel unsure about their gender
  • ask you to call them by a different name and use a different pronoun like he, she or they
  • want to get rid of the physical signs of their sex or have those of a different sex – for example, your child might say they want to use medication to become more masculine or feminine, or they might start wearing clothes that hide their body
  • show signs of anxiety, especially in social situations
  • show signs of depression – for example, not wanting to take part in activities, particularly activities that are gendered, like sport
  • self harm – for example, by scratching, cutting or biting themselves.

You can support your child with gender dysphoria by showing that you love and accept them as they are. It’s also good to talk with them about what they’re experiencing.

Support and treatment for children who want or need to change genders

If your child wants to change gender or you’re worried your child has gender dysphoria, going to your GP is a good first step. The GP can give you information and a referral to a psychologist or specialist gender service if there’s one in your area.

If your GP or psychologist isn’t familiar with the needs of children who want to change genders or who have gender dysphoria, or isn’t supportive of your child’s situation, it’s OK to seek a second opinion.

Treatment for children who want to change genders or who have gender dysphoria depends on your child’s individual needs. It aims to focus on your child’s physical and psychological wellbeing and support them to affirm their gender identity.

If your child hasn’t reached puberty, the professional might:

  • work with your family to help you understand your child’s experience and support your child
  • support your child to explore their gender
  • support your child to socially transition, where appropriate.

Once puberty has started, treatment options include:

  • psychological support like psychotherapy to help your child explore their gender identity
  • family therapy to help you understand your child’s experience
  • support to help your child socially transition, where appropriate
  • voice coaching and speech therapy to help your child communicate in a way that’s consistent with their gender identity.

Children who want to change genders need to have a comprehensive medical and mental health assessment before any medical treatment can be recommended. For some teenagers, medical treatment can help reduce the distress associated with physical aspects of their bodies.

There are also two stages of medical treatment for children who want to change gender:

  • Stage 1 is medication to put puberty on hold so your child has time to decide about future treatment. This treatment is mostly used in early puberty. It stops the physical changes of puberty and can be reversed.
  • Stage 2 is hormone treatment to change your child’s body to be more consistent with your child’s gender identity. It’s appropriate for some older teenagers.

A person’s gender identity is different from their sexual orientation, which is to do with romantic or sexual attraction. It’s also different from being intersex, which is when people are born with variations in the parts of the body associated with sex and reproductive development.