Your little boy has always enjoyed dressing up as Elsa, but now he wants to wear dresses to preschool and you’re not sure what to do. Your little girl has always been a tomboy but is now telling you they are a boy. You want to let your child be who they are, but you also want to protect them from bullying and stigma. How do you know when your child’s gender explorations are just a phase versus part of their identity?
You know the sex your child was assigned at birth. That’s the one the doctor told you when you had a sonogram during pregnancy or when your child was born. You are also probably familiar with your child’s gender expression, even if you’ve never called it that. If your child loves to play with dolls, wear dresses, wants long hair, and prefers a bathing suit that covers their chest, their gender expression could be feminine. If your child enjoys playing with cars and trucks, hates wearing dresses, likes pants and shirts, wants short hair, and prefers a swimsuit that exposes their chest, their gender expression could be masculine. If your child enjoys blending the two of these or fluctuating between them their gender expression is perhaps both masculine and feminine.
People whose gender expression doesn’t line up with their sex assigned at birth are called gender expansive. If you’re reading this article you probably have a gender expansive child and are wondering what their gender identity is. Gender identity is how a person thinks of themselves internally – as a boy, a girl, both, neither, or another gender. Someone is transgender (i.e. trans) if their sex assigned at birth does not line up with their gender identity. Someone is cisgender if their sex assigned at birth lines up with their gender identity. Most people are cisgender. You are most likely cisgender.
Gender Expansive vs. Transgender
If your child is gender expansive, they may or may not be transgender. A child who enjoys playing dress up as both male and female characters for example, could grow up to be a straight, cisgender adult. Alternatively, many gay, bisexual, or lesbian cisgender adults were gender expansive children.
Gender expression alone does not tell you what your child’s gender identity is or what their sexual orientation will be. However, there are some early clues that your child is transgender that you should look out for. If your child explicitly tells you their gender identity, you should listen to them. For example…
- If your child, who you think of as your daughter, tells you they’re a boy (or vice versa), then there’s a good chance they’re trans.
- If you refer to your child as she and your child tells you to say he (or vice versa), this could also indicate your child is trans.
Being transgender is not a mental illness, but it is beneficial to come into therapy when your child starts telling you these things so that you can both process your reactions to their evolving gender identity and get guidance on how to support your kid.
If it seems like your child is trans, then therapy can help you figure out the next steps to take. You may have questions about what your child should be wearing to preschool, whether to refer to them by different pronouns (he/she/they), whether to allow them to change their name, and who to tell at what point. Therapy can help families throughout this process to figure out when and how to tell extended family members, communicate with the child’s school, cope with people who aren’t supportive, and connect you to supportive communities.
You might be going through a grieving process – you’ve imagined a future for your child that is now coming into question. You might feel like you’ve lost your son or daughter. It’s important to have a place to express that, but it’s also crucial that you don’t share too much of your sadness with your child. It can be devastating for them to feel like you’re disappointed in them because of who they are. A child is never ready to be depended upon to take care of a parent’s emotional well-being.
While you may be focused on the risks of letting your child express their gender (e.g. bullying), the risks of being unsupportive when your child is transgender are greater. Trans teens are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as cisgender teens (1). However, transgender youth who have supportive parents and are allowed to express their gender are as mentally well as their peers (2). Furthermore, trans youth with family support are four times more likely to have good mental health than unsupported trans youth (3). It may take some time to reimagine your child’s future, but with your love and support your transgender child can grow up to be happy and healthy.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or to schedule a session to discuss your gender expansive child: Katherine@childteencounseling.com