Gender identity

Advice to help you understand what gender identity is and how to support a child.

What is gender identity?

Gender identity is a way to describe how someone feels about their gender. For example, some people may identify as a boy or a girl, while others may find neither of these terms feel right for them, and identify as neither or somewhere in the middle. Although people often confuse them, gender identity is different from someone’s biological sex or assigned gender at birth and from sexuality or who someone’s attracted to.

While many people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, for others gender is more of a spectrum, with lots of different possible identities. Gender identity is a personal feeling, and a child or young person will be the best person to know what matches how they feel. Children and young people can also question or feel unsure about their gender identity, or find that their gender identity changes over time. This is sometimes called ‘gender fluid’.

Gender expression is how someone chooses to express their gender identity. This could be through the way they dress, speak or act. For example, by wearing dresses or choosing to shave. How someone looks or dresses does not always reflect their gender identity. Children and young people will feel comfortable expressing their gender identity at different ages and in different ways.

Just some of the terms a young person or child might use to describe their gender identity are:

    • Trans or transgender: this is when someone feels their gender is different from the gender they were assigned at birth.
    • Non-binary, gender fluid or gender queer: this means someone doesn’t identify as either male or female. They could identify as both, or neither.
    • Cisgender: this is when someone’s gender identity is the same as the gender they were assigned at birth.

How to support a child

Sometimes it can be hard for parents and carers when their child comes out as transgender or non-binary, or if they’re questioning their assigned gender identity. You may feel unsure how to help them, not know what to say or how to relate to what they’re going through. Parents might also find it hard to know how to talk to their child’s school, or explain things to extended family who may not be supportive. Some parents may also feel angry or upset when they find out about their child’s gender identity.

Whatever you’re feeling, it’s important to remember that transitioning or questioning their gender identity can be a stressful and lonely experience for some children and young people. They may feel like no one understands what it’s like for them, worry about being accepted or about how their friends and family will react if they come out.

We have advice on how parents and carers can support their children:

Listening without judgement can be a great way to show your support. Some children can feel like no one understands what they’re going through, or may be worried about how their parents will react, so listening can help them to feel accepted and supported.

It can help to listen actively and respectfully to show them you’re truly involved. Try to ask open questions that don’t have yes or no answers and not to interrupt them. It’s important to keep the conversation about their feelings, and to avoid offering opinions or advice.

Some children or young people may find it difficult to talk about how they’re feeling about their gender identity. It can take a lot of courage for them to start the conversation and sometimes they may not feel comfortable sharing everything straightaway. Be patient and try not to rush them. Instead let them know that you’re there if they want to continue the conversation at a different time. 

It’s natural for children and young people to explore and develop their identities. It can help to remember that gender identity is just one part of this and doesn’t define your child. For some children or young people, their gender identity may stay fixed. But your child may also be questioning their gender and it’s important to accept that their gender identity may change over time. The most important thing you can do is to give them the time and space to explore or express their identity and accept them as they are now.

Young people may want to use pronouns that reflect their gender identity such as ‘she’ or ‘her’, while others may prefer gender neutral pronouns such as ‘they’. They may also want to change their name. Try to use the correct pronouns and name when referring to your child, or ask if you’re unsure. You may also want to ask your child if they’d like you to speak to extended family or their school about the pronouns they prefer or about a name change. 

No child should be made to feel shame or distress because of their gender identity. Using toilets and changing facilities that don’t match a young person’s gender identity can cause stress and schools and other educational or social organisations should try and accommodate the young person’s preferences in a thoughtful way. It is important parents and carers work with their child’s school to find a solution that supports their child. Decisions should be taken on a case by case basis following equalities law, safeguarding policy and including a risk assessment for all children involved.

Sometimes it can be hard for parents or carers when their child identifies as transgender or is questioning their gender identity. Some parents may also find it difficult having to explain things to their child’s school or extended family, especially if anyone is unsupportive.

For some parents coming to terms with their child’s new gender identity can be really challenging. They may experience feelings of anger, grief or loss after finding out their child does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. If you’re struggling with this, joining a support group and speaking to other families in similar situations can really help. It can also be helpful to remember that gender identity is just one part of your child’s identity, and that they’re still your child.

It’s also important to reach out to your own friends and family members for support where possible. Sometimes just having someone who’ll listen can help. Your GP may also be able to help you find support and counselling if you need it. 

It can be really upsetting if your child’s experiencing transphobic bullying or being bullied because of their gender identity. This can include things like deliberately refusing to call them by their new name or pronouns, or asking personal sexual questions.

Bullying someone because of their gender identity is a hate crime and against the law. You or your child can report it online or by calling the police. Call 999 in an emergency or 101 for information or support.

We also have advice on how to support a child who’s being bullied, whether it’s happening at school or online. Children and young can also get advice and support on homophobic and transphobic bullying from Childline.

Worried about a child?

If you're worried about a child or young person, you can contact the NSPCC helpline for support and advice for free - call us on 0808 800 5000 or contact us online.

Children can contact Childline any time to get support themselves.

Get support

Gender dysphoria and transitioning

Gender dysphoria is when someone experiences discomfort or distress because their gender identity is different from their biological sex. It can start from a very young age. This could include things like not wanting to wear masculine or feminine clothing for example. Older children may feel anxious or uncomfortable about the changes that happen during puberty, such as starting periods or things like voice deepening.

In 2018/19 Childline had 996 counselling sessions about gender dysphoria.1 Common themes for children contacting Childline with questions about their gender identity are anxiety about their feelings, the fear of not being accepted, the lack of available support and the time that it takes for them to access services.

Some young people who experience gender dysphoria may decide to transition. Transitioning is the journey someone takes from presenting themselves as the gender they were born into, to presenting themselves as the gender they feel they are. Young people or children may choose to do this in different ways and at different stages depending on what they feel comfortable with. Some young people may choose to do this privately or just with close friends and family before coming out more publicly.

A child or young person’s transition may involve changing the way they look or dress. For example, they might want to wear make-up or shave their facial hair. Some children may also want to visit the doctor to get support or discuss their options for medical treatment. Your GP should be able to provide advice and guidance about what options are available to support children and families.

If you're worried about a child who's LGBTQ+

Not all children and young people feel comfortable talking to their parents or carers about their gender identity, or their family may be unsupportive when they do. Children may also be experiencing abuse or neglect at home, and not feel safe to come out.

Adults outside the child's family, such as teachers, sports coaches or extended family can provide valuable support. Being able to talk to a safe adult who'll listen non-judgementally can really help a young person to feel accepted and less alone.

You may be worried about a child you know who's being bullied because of their sexual or gender identity, or who's experiencing abuse at home. We also know that LGBTQ+ young people are more at risk of grooming and child sexual exploitation.

If any of these things are happening, it's important to get help right away. Our trained helpline counsellors can provide support and advice online or over the phone on 0808 800 5000

Support for young people from Childline


References

  1. 1. Family relationship problems were mentioned in 1 in 5 counselling sessions about sexuality or gender identity issues.