Although we often associate gender development with puberty and adolescence, children begin showing interest in their gender early in life.
This article discusses how gender identity typically develops and how parents and caregivers can promote healthy gender development in children. It's important to remember that each child is unique and may develop at a different pace.
What we mean by gender: Some useful terms
Assigned sex: When children are born, they are assigned “male” or “female” based on their external sex organs. When a child has a penis, the assigned sex is male. When a child has a vulva, the assigned sex is female. In rare cases, a child is born with external sex organs that are not clearly male or female.
Gender identity: Gender identity is “who you know yourself to be”. While gender has generally been used to mean male or female, we now understand that gender exists on a spectrum. A person’s gender identity may be male, female, or it may be somewhere in between, including “neither” or “both”.
Gender expression: This is how you express your gender to others, whether through behaviour, clothing, hairstyle, or the name you choose to go by. Words to describe someone’s gender expression could be “masculine,” “feminine,” or “androgynous”.
Sexual orientation: This refers to the gender of the people to whom you are typically sexually and/or romantically attracted. A person can be attracted to those of the same gender and/or different gender(s). Your gender identity does not define your sexual orientation.
Transgender: When a person’s gender identity is not the same as their assigned sex at birth, they may be referred to as “transgender” (often shortened to “trans”). For example, a child born with female body parts may say that they are a boy. A child may also say that they are not a boy or a girl, but just “themselves” because they don’t want their sexual characteristics to define who they are. Indigenous people may use the term “two-spirit” to represent a person with a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics.
Gender dysphoria: Describes the level of discomfort or suffering associated with the conflict that can exist between a person's assigned sex at birth and their true gender. Some transgender children experience no distress about their bodies, but others may be very uncomfortable with their assigned sex, especially at the start of puberty when their body starts to change.
How does gender identity develop?
Most children have a strong sense of their gender identity by the time they are 4 years old. Here is what you can typically expect at different ages:
- 2 to 3 years old:
- At around 2 years old, children are aware of physical differences between boys and girls.
- Most children can identify themselves as a “boy” or “girl”, although this may or may not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Some children’s gender identity remains stable over their life, while others may alternate between identifying themselves as “boy” or “girl”, or even assume other gender identities at different times (sometimes even in the same day). This is normal and healthy.
- 4 to 5 years old:
- While many children at this age have a stable gender identity, gender identity may change later in life.
- Children become more aware of gender expectations or stereotypes as they grow older. For example, they may think that certain toys are only for girls or boys.
- Some children may express their gender very strongly. For example, a child might go through a stage of insisting on wearing a dress every day, or refusing to wear a dress even on special occasions.
- 6 to 7 years old:
- Many children begin to reduce outward expressions of gender as they feel more confident that others recognize their gender. For example, a girl may not feel that she has to wear a dress every day because she knows that others see her as a girl no matter what she wears.
- Children who feel their gender identity is different from the sex assigned to them at birth may experience increased social anxiety because they want to be the same as their peers, but realize they don’t feel the same way.
- 8 years old and up:
- Most children will continue to identify with their sex assigned at birth.
- Pre-teens and teens continue to develop their gender identity through personal reflection and with input from their social environment, like peers, family and friends.
- Some gender-stereotyped behaviours may appear. You may notice your teen or pre-teen making efforts to “play up" or "play down" some of their body’s physical changes.
- Others are more confident in their gender identity and no longer feel like they have to portray a perfectly masculine or feminine appearance.
- As puberty begins, some youth may realize that their gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth.
- Because some children’s gender identification may change, especially around puberty, families are encouraged to keep options open for their child.
How do most children express their gender identity?
Younger children may express their gender very clearly. For example, they may say “I am a she, not a he!”, “I am not your daughter, I am your son.”
Children may also express their gender through their:
- Clothing or hairstyle
- Choice of toys, games, and sports
- Social relationships, including the gender of friends
- Preferred name or nickname
Remember: Gender expression is different from gender identity. You can’t assume a child’s gender identity based on their gender expression (for example, their choice of toys, clothing, or friends).
My little boy likes to wear dresses. Should I let him?
Some children go through a phase of resisting gender expectations. Remember that gender expression and gender identity are two different things. The way you express yourself does not necessarily define your gender.
Children do best when their parents or caregivers show them that they are loved and accepted for who they are. Discouraging your child from expressing a gender can make them feel ashamed. Give them unconditional support. In doing so, you are not framing a gender, but simply accepting who they are and how they are feeling.
For most children, this is usually a phase. No one can tell you whether your child’s gender identity or expression will change over time. What children need to know most is that you will love and accept them as they figure out their place in the world. In older children, you can also gently help prepare them for negative reactions from other children, for example, by role-playing how best to confidently respond to teasing.
What does gender-creative mean?
Gender-creative children express their gender differently from what society may expect. For example, a boy who loves to wear pink or a girl who insists on wearing her hair very short might be considered “gender-creative”. Society’s expectations for gender constantly change and vary in different cultures and at different times in history.
I think my child may be transgender. What should I do next?
There is nothing medically or psychologically wrong with your child. Gender diversity is not a result of illness or parenting style. It isn’t caused by letting your son play with dolls, or your daughter play with trucks.
If your child is transgender or gender-creative, they can live a happy and healthy life. Get support from other parents of transgender and gender-creative children, or talk to a mental health professional who specializes in the care of transgender and gender-creative children (if available in your community). Indigenous families can talk to a two-spirit elder or leader. See additional resources listed below.
How can I support my child?
Strong parent support is key!
- Love your child for who they are.
- Talk with your child about gender identity. As soon as your child is able to say words like “girl” and “boy,” they are beginning to understand gender.
- Ask questions! This is a great way to hear your child’s ideas about gender.
- Read books with your child that talk about many different ways to be a boy, a girl, or somewhere in between.
- Don’t pressure your child to change who they are.
- Find opportunities to show your child that transgender and gender-diverse people exist and belong to many communities who appreciate and love them.
- Ask your child’s teachers how they support gender expression and what they teach about gender identity at school.
- Be aware that a child who is worrying about gender may show signs of depression, anxiety, and poor concentration. They may not want to go to school.
- Be aware of potentially negative issues that your child may face. Let your child know that you want to hear about any bullying or intimidation towards them.
- If you are concerned about your child’s emotional health, talk to your child’s family doctor, paediatrician, or a mental health professional that specializes in the care of transgender and gender-creative children.
- Some parents have a hard time accepting that their child’s gender identity is different than their assigned sex at birth, often in cultures where this is not easily accepted. If you are having difficulties, please seek additional help through websites, printed resources, support groups or mental health providers. See below for additional resources.
Thank you to the Child, Youth, and Family Committee of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health and Gender Creative Kids Canada for their guidance and expertise in the development of this resource.
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Community Paediatrics Committee
- Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee
- Public Education Advisory Committee
Last Updated: May 2018