What is gender identity?
Sex describes biological differences between the female and male genitalia. A child's sex is usually assigned at birth.
Gender describes a person's internal sense of their identity. For example, someone might identify as a woman or girl, non-binary, transgender, a man or boy, gender fluid, or something different.
These are some words people use when talking about gender identity:
- Cisgender/cis: This refers to someone who identifies as the same gender they were assigned at birth.
- Transgender: This is someone whose gender is different from their sex at birth.
- Non-binary/genderqueer/gender fluid: These are gender identities that sit within, outside of, across or between ‘male’ and ‘female'
- Intersex: This refers to a person who is born with biology that is not solely male or female. For example, chromosomes, hormone levels or reproductive organs that have female and male characteristics. These variations may not always be seen on the outside and so sometimes they are not diagnosed.
- Pronouns: These are the terms we use to refer to someone, e.g. ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’.
Your child may use different words to describe their gender. For more information about the different terms and gender identities, visit Stonewall.
Questions around gender identity can emerge at any time, and there is a wide range of reported experiences. Some individuals know from childhood that they feel mis-gendered, while others might not recognise this until adulthood. Parents may be aware that their child is questioning their gender identity from an early age, or they may not. Some people may also feel that their gender identity, and the words they use to describe it, changes or develops at different times.
If your child is questioning their gender and they are being supported by professionals, you may hear doctors using terms such as gender dysphoria, gender identity disorder (GID), gender incongruence or transgenderism.
Gender identity is a deep-rooted sense of self. Having a sense of identity in this way is really important for our mental health, wellbeing and sense of resilience.
How can I help my child?
If your child doesn't feel certain about their gender, life can be very stressful, and there may be times when they feel that they don’t fit in anywhere. Young people going through gender identity issues can experience stigma, bullying, isolation and even violence from others. They might also struggle with difficult feelings and use coping mechanisms like self-harm.
Remember that there are things you can do to help your child and to make sure they have the right support around them.
Show your child explicitly that you accept them and want to support them. If they are feeling confused about - or coming to terms with - their gender identity, fear of negative judgement and rejection can be huge obstacles to seeking support and talking to you.
When they are ready to talk, focus on listening and finding out what it's like for them.
If your child is questioning their gender, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are trans - but they may be. Remember that it's a journey of discovery and expression, and that can take time.
Try to understand as much as you can about what your child is going through, including looking at what support is available at your child's school or from local services. You may need to be their advocate in talking to school, college or health professionals, if and when the time is right.
Communication is everything, and being open-minded is the best approach. Whatever happens, they are still your child.
Whether it's 'he'/'him' or 'she'/'her' or something else, address them by their preferred pronouns. If you make a mistake, correct yourself or allow yourself to be corrected, and continue to try. This will show your child that you are making an effort, showing them respect, and doing your best to adapt to their preferences.
It may feel uncomfortable for them to be asked very personal, intimate or intrusive questions – so ask if it’s okay to ask, and respect the answer. Think about how you might feel if your own parent asked you something deeply personal about yourself.
Being part of a group may help to reduce your child's sense of isolation - allowing them to meet people with similar experiences and a shared understanding of what they're going through. Groups can offer a safe space and a sense of community, whether in person or online. A good place to start is seeing if there are any LGBTQIA+ youth groups in your local area or at your child's school.
It’s understandable if you are feeling upset, anxious or scared about what your child is going through. Being honest about this with other adults you trust is really important, and it might help to share your experiences with other families in the same situation. There are organisations listed below who can help you with this.
Gender Identity Development Service
The Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) is England’s only NHS service for children and young people experiencing difficulties in the development of their gender identity. The service has main clinics in London and Leeds, as well as satellite clinics elsewhere across England in places like Exeter.
GIDS has a staged approach to supporting young people. Every young person is different and will be treated as an individual. If your child is referred to GIDS, first they will have a full psychosocial assessment, which is usually three to six appointments with two experts. They will work with your child, and family, to explore your child’s understanding of their gender identity, and to talk about how their feelings may have changed over time, and how they might change in future.
Finding more support
Supports and provides information for transgender and gender-diverse young people (up to and including the age of 19) and their families.
Free webchat service available.
- Opening times:
- 9am - 9pm, Monday - Friday
Works with the transgender community, with an emphasis on supporting young trans people aged 8-25.
Provides an online directory of therapists who work with gender and sexual diversity clients across the LGBTQ+ spectrum from a non-judgmental standpoint.
You can search the directory here.