How to Support a Gender Diverse Child
By Anjali Ferguson, Ph.D.
Did you know children begin their gender identity development as early as two years of age?
There is so much we intentionally and unintentionally do as parents to promote and support this process of gender identity development. Still, aside from parents, children themselves draw their own understanding of gender identity through a process called gender exploration.
Gender exploration is a normal process of development that occurs several times throughout our childhood and can continue to occur into adulthood. Therefore, we must understand the process and meet every child with love and support through their individual journey as parents.
To better understand the process, we have to define the difference between sex and gender.
Sex is the assigned gender of an individual based on physical characteristics at birth. Gender is a social construct of an internal state. It is informed by a combination of biology, development, and environment. That means that gender is not based on true biological or scientific differences (sex).
Gender was created by society to classify behaviors. Culture and society influence how gender is expressed and how people operate in the world. For example, the notions that “boys are active” and “girls like pink” have no scientific rationale. They were created based on thought alone.
Historically, gender diversity, or the extent to which a person’s gender identity differs from the cultural norms prescribed for a particular sex, was considered a mental health condition. To this day, modern classification and diagnostic manuals include a pathological condition related to gender identity; however, gender diversity, exploration, development, and fluidity are not pathological or created by illness. It is innate.
Gender identity development begins as early as the toddler years. By age 2, children start to notice physical differences. By 3, children can label themselves a boy or girl, and by 4, children have an understanding of their gender identity.
The child can also notice gender diversity (i.e., non-conforming or non-matched with their biological sex) at the same time. Data shows that children who are gender diverse know their gender just as clearly as their gender-matched peers, even if it’s not accepted or seems confusing to parents.
Caregiver and parents’ support is crucial to the health of gender-diverse children.
Children who express a gender-diverse identity who feel supported by their family experience lower depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety. It is imperative we provide gender-affirming, supportive, and nurturing care for all children as they navigate these normative processes.
Some examples of this include:
1. Be supportive. For each child, “support” may look different. Approach them and their exploration with patience, kindness, and nurturance.
2. Allow exploration. Remember, children are inherently curious, so they will naturally want to explore. Toys and books are not gendered. Allow boys to play with dolls and girls tools/trucks if they are interested. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to play or be.
3. Avoid judgment. One of the most important tips is to avoid shame, criticism, or judgment. Monitor your own biases and avoid statements like, ” Boys don’t wear dresses or play with dolls.”
4. Provide resources. Provide a variety of toys in all forms, shapes, and colors. Also, introduce books with diverse families that include same-sex families. Give them access to books that dispel gender stereotypes like “Boys like Pink.”
5. Correct other harmful adults. We all hold biases because of the societies we were raised in. Understand your own gender biases and help correct other adults who may unintentionally (or intentionally) make harmful statements. We all still have a lot to learn.
There are many resources to learn more about how to best support children through gender identity development. Visit my website http://parentingculture.org for tools and the opportunity to connect and have open conversations around research-informed, inclusive parenting.
Dr. Anjali Ferguson is a culturally responsive psychologist and global resource on treating racial trauma and its mental health effects on children and families. Her commitment to social equity is experienced through her online community Parenting Culture– a research-informed, inclusive space for open conversations around parenting and her landmark contributions to Blindian (Black + Indian) literature. Dr. Ferguson speaks to providers, organizations and communities of all sizes on racial socialization and equity training.