Gender is more complex than most of us have been taught. But it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Every family is unique, with different family dynamics, as well as cultural, social, and religious influences. Some families have to consider their child’s physical safety in their communities more than others, but all families have to weigh the effects of their parenting approach on their child’s long term psychological well-being.
Even though we as parents have great influence over our children, parents can’t change a child’s gender. However, you can help your children have a healthy, positive sense of themselves in relation to their gender. For more on supporting your children in their gender journeys, see “Supportive Parenting.”
If your child has identified as the opposite gender since early childhood, it is unlikely they will change their mind. Experts such as medical and mental health providers agree that most people have some sense of their gender identity between the ages of two and four years old. For most, this awareness remains stable over time. For example, a 12 year old child who was assigned a male gender at birth, but has consistently asserted “I am a girl” since the age of three will most likely remain transgender throughout life.
There are cases when a young child who strongly identifies with the opposite gender does change their mind. The most common time for this to occur is about 9-10 years old. There is insufficient research to know if these children later identify as gender-expansive or transgender adults. So, it is unclear if this change indicates that the child has learned to hide their true self, or if it was indeed just a childhood phase.
Is This Just a Phase?
For some children, expressing gender-expansiveness may be a phase; virtually all children play with gender when they are young. For others, this exploration may move beyond play. Only time will tell. For some, there will be a degree of insistence, consistence and persistence that can be a strong indication that a child is truly gender-expansive or transgender. However, this will not always be demonstrated, and the absence of these indicators should never be used as "proof" that an adolescent or teen can't be transgender because they were not present in early childhood.
If a boy likes to play with dolls or likes the color pink, this doesn’t mean they will grow up to be transgender. If a girl wants to be called “John” for a couple of weeks, this doesn’t mean she will always feel like a boy. The longer and more insistently that a child has identified as the opposite gender, a combination of genders, or neither gender, the easier it becomes for a parent to know. Regardless of the eventual outcome, the self-esteem, mental well-being, and overall health of a child relies heavily on receiving love, support and compassion from their parents no matter where they are on their gender journey.
Another typical time for gender identity to come into question is at puberty. Many teens who have never exhibited anything outside the norm in their gender expression or identity start feeling differently as puberty approaches. This can be very confusing for parents who “didn’t see this coming.” It is the reason why the notions of persistence, consistence and insistence in childhood must never be used as some sort of bar for a teen to prove the legitimacy of their experience.
Since adolescence is a time of exploration and change in general, it can be hard for parents to know if this is just a teenage phase, or whether their child is “really” gender-expansive or transgender. Look to the concept of “insistence, consistence and persistence” to determine if a child is truly gender-expansive or transgender. This may mean you won’t have an answer for some time.
Though these are two common times for gender identity to come up for children, they are certainly not the only times. A person at any age including as adults, can start feeling differently about their gender identity or expression.