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How to Support Children While They Learn and Explore Their Gender Identity

By Fraser Behavior Practitioner Heidi Knauber (she/her), Fraser Clinical Operations Coordinator Milo Williams (they/them), and Pam Dewey (she/her) • gender identity, gender, children and gender, kids and gender, exploring gender identity, nonbinary, questioning, gender biases, explaining gender, gender and sex, kids exploring gender, pronouns, personal pronouns • March 24, 2022

Teaching your children about their bodies and gender can feel awkward for parents. You may feel unsure how to explain gender. Or maybe you have noticed your child is exploring gender in a different way than you’re used to seeing.

Here are a few ideas about how to teach your child about gender and to support them while they explore their gender identity.

Help them understand the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity

While some people are born with male genitals and feel like boys, that isn’t always the case. Gender is a socially constructed idea. The Trevor Project states, “You may not notice it all the time, but each gender comes with a set of expectations, like how to act, talk, dress, feel emotion, and interact with other people.”

If you’re comfortable doing so, experts recommend that you use the actual words for genitals. This prevents children from feeling a sense of shame attached to these body parts. To explain gender, Planned Parenthood suggests, “You can say that most girls have vulvas and most boys have penises/testicles. You may want to emphasize that it doesn’t matter too much what parts someone has — that doesn’t tell you much about them.” Explain these body parts don’t make them a boy or a girl, but how they feel inside or identify does. Also, let them know it’s okay if they’re not sure, or don’t necessarily feel like either.

Be aware of your own gender biases

Whether you realize it or not, you likely have some gender biases. Like your kids, you see these ideas reflected in TV, books, movies and by people you know. Even though you’ve absorbed some of these ideas, you can still adjust your behavior and what you share with your children.

Fraser Behavior Practitioner Heidi Knauber (she/her) says to be aware of ideas you might have regarding what toys your children should be playing with or dressing like, based on their sex. This can send the message that there is a right and wrong way to be a boy or girl. When you’re shopping for toys or books, ask yourself whether it expands or limits your child’s expectations of who they can grow up to be.  

It’s normal to explore gender

Children can start expressing their gender at a young age, often when parents allow kids to pick out what they want to wear. It is also normal for children to have many questions about gender. As kids enter puberty, how they feel about gender and whom they are attracted to can also change. 

Create a safe and non-judgmental place

You can help your child explore their gender by creating a safe and non-judgmental space for them.

“Let them know it is okay to be themselves. Pay attention to how they like to express themselves through dress and play,” says Knauber. “It’s also important to give them choices for expressing their gender, and then let them lead the way.

Knauber adds when kids start asking questions, be aware of how you’re reacting. You don’t want to shame them about how they’re thinking or feeling. Take a step back and reflect on why you’re reacting that way. If it isn’t a good time to talk about the topic, acknowledge their question, tell them you’ll talk about it later and then make sure you follow up. 

What if your child says they don’t feel like their birth gender?

Listen to them and validate what they’re feeling. You should also not assume it’s a phase.

“It might come as a shock to you as a parent,” says Fraser Clinical Operations Coordinator Milo Williams, who identifies as non-binary. “But I think the main thing is to listen to them and ask them how you can support them. There are so many resources out there, and you can educate yourself.”

It’s also important to realize that kids have access to a lot of information, and they’re learning new things every day. While you should assume it’s not a phase, their perspective might change, as they receive new information. You can help them find their way by asking open-ended questions and making sure they feel safe and supported.

Your child may also act out in an extreme manner. If they do, don’t take it personally or judge them. They may be dealing with many questions and conflicting feelings.

“Some kids might not talk about these feelings with important people in their lives because they’re afraid they’ll judge them or won’t want to be with them anymore. Let them know you’re not going to leave them because they say something or do something,” says Knauber. “Also let them know that you love them for who they are.”

You can ask for help

There is also nothing wrong with asking for help. Some children may benefit from talking to a therapist. Fraser has several support groups for adolescents and young adults who may be exploring gender or sexuality. You can contact Chris Emery at for details.

Here are some children’s books about exploring gender and identity: