Gender identity, diversity and dysphoria: supporting your child

Gender identity, diversity and dysphoria: supporting your child

Gender identity: supporting your child

For some children and teenagers in all cultures, their gender identity is different from the sex they were given at birth. These children do well with support from parents, family and the community.

Support involves:

  • accepting, valuing and loving your child for who they are
  • talking with your child about their experiences and needs
  • helping your child tell others and socially transition when they're ready.

This support will help your child feel a sense of belonging and have a positive outlook. It will also boost your child's mental health and self-esteem.

Trying to change a child's mind about their gender can be damaging, as can stopping a child from expressing themselves. Children who aren't accepted by family and friends can become withdrawn, anxious or depressed. Teenagers are also more likely to self-harm or have suicidal thoughts.

Accepting your child's gender identity

If your child tells you they want to be a different gender, it might seem sudden to you. But your child might have been thinking about it and preparing to tell you for a long time. Your child might also find it very hard to talk to you about it.

It's important to show your child that you accept and love them for who they are. You can also reassure your child that you'll support them, just as you would with any other issue.

It can be tempting to think that wanting to change genders is a phase. Gender identity can change and your child might still be working out how they identify themselves, but it's important to accept the way your child feels about their gender identity as it is now. One way you can do this is by using the name and pronouns your child chooses.

Talking with your child about their gender identity

You can ask your child questions to help you understand what they're experiencing. For example, you could ask how long they've been feeling this way, or whether they've spoken to anyone else about it.

It's also important to listen to what being gender diverse means to your child. For example, don't assume it means your child will want to wear certain clothes, or transition to a different gender.

You can also ask your child how you can help. You might ask, 'What help do you need right now?' And you could ask whether your child needs you to advocate for something they need, like using a different toilet at school or wearing a different school uniform.

Talking with your child about sharing information
You could also talk about whether your child wants to tell grandparents, friends and teachers. It's important that your child decides who they want to tell about being gender diverse.

If your child doesn't want to let others know about their gender identity, it's important to respect your child's wishes.

But sometimes you might need to tell people like the school principal or your child's teachers. This can ensure that everyone uses your child's preferred name and pronouns and that your child is treated respectfully and with as much privacy as possible.

Bringing up gender identity with your child
If you want to bring up the subject of gender diversity with your young child, you could start by asking them about how they feel about being a boy or a girl. There are also some helpful books you could read together, like The gender fairy or My princess boy.

If you have an older or teenage child, you could talk with them about movies or books with gender-diverse or transgender characters, like Luna or Parrotfish.

You could also ask your child questions like 'Are things OK with you at the moment?' or 'Would you like to talk with me about anything?'

It's a good idea to reassure your child that you love them, no matter what. You could say, 'I'm here to listen and talk about anything that's worrying you, even things you think I won't understand. We can work things out together'.

Supporting your child to socially transition

Social transitioning is when your child starts to dress and identify as their chosen gender. Your child might change their name, pronoun, hairstyle or clothes. For gender-diverse children and teenagers who have gender dysphoria, social transitioning can help reduce distress.

Talking with your child about what they want and what they're comfortable with will help your child's transition. For example, you could talk with your child about whether they want to transition just in some environments like home, or whether they want to transition at school and sports activities as well.

It might also be good to talk with your child about staying safe when they're out in public, especially if this is something you're worried about.

If your child is socially transitioning: working with schools and clubs

If your child wants to transition at school or elsewhere, you'll need to talk to your child's preschool, school, sporting or other clubs. This can make it less likely your child will be bullied or discriminated against.

Many schools have experience with students who are gender diverse, and all schools can get information and resources about supporting your child. Both single sex and co-educational schools can accommodate gender-diverse students.

You'll need to discuss practical issues like:

  • school uniform
  • sports teams
  • using toilets or change rooms.

It's also a good idea to ask:

  • whether staff have had gender training
  • what anti-bullying policies are in place
  • what policies there are about telling other students or parents
  • how the school or organisation would monitor or manage effects on your child's siblings.

Settings like local sports clubs might know less about gender diversity. You might need to give them resources or information about how other organisations meet the needs of gender-diverse children. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has some useful guidance for including transgender and gender-diverse people in sport.

If your child is starting at a new school or activity and has already socially transitioned, they might not want people to know. But it's important to talk with your child about who you might need to tell, like the school principal and teachers.

In this situation, it's a good idea to talk with your child about how they'll manage having a secret, and what they'll do if other children in their class find out.

Gender identity, gender dysphoria and mental health

Children and teenagers who are gender diverse might experience gender dysphoria. They're also more likely to experience anxiety or depression, have suicidal thoughts, or self-harm than their cisgender peers. This is even more likely if they face barriers to expressing their gender identity, or have negative experiences like bullying, stigma or discrimination.

The start of puberty can also be a particularly difficult time for gender-diverse children as their bodies begin to change in ways they don't want.

But gender-diverse children who have socially transitioned have similar self-worth and levels of depression as their cisgender peers.

Speaking to your child's GP is a good place to start if your child is having mental health problems. You don't need to find a specialist in gender identity or gender dysphoria to start with if you're worried about depression or anxiety. But if your GP isn't familiar with or supportive of the needs of children who want to change gender or who have gender dysphoria, it's OK to find someone else. A mental health clinician experienced in gender dysphoria in young people can also help your child work through their gender identity.

You can also promote good mental health for your younger child and good mental health for your teenage child by helping your child manage feelings, being loving and supportive, and encouraging physical activity.

If your child tells you they keep thinking about self-harm or suicide, seek urgent professional help. Call Lifeline on 131 114, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also call 000 or go straight to a hospital emergency department.