Learning Years: Gender & Identity Exploration

July 30, 2019

“Fortunately, some youngsters are allowed to gradually learn who they are with supportive families.”

The notion of gender gets more complex the more socially ubiquitous it becomes, but parents play an important role in helping to set the record straight.

Gender identity has traditionally been limited to a binary male-female distinction. Today, people are exploring beyond the binary, using a broader lens of self definition. Some do not want to be labeled male or female, while others do not want to consider gender at all. This is referred to as gender fluid.

There are still a lot of misconceptions around gender and identity. Gender dysphoria refers to individuals who may be uncomfortable with or deeply troubled by their assigned gender. Some, but not all, individuals who are gender dysphoric are transgender.

While some regard gender fluidity as a fad or trend, this view will not be helpful in discourse with a child or teen. Gender fluidity challenges older people’s presumption of the nature of gender. For many parents, this whole thing may be unsettling and difficult to understand. However, it is here to stay, and it calls for sensitivity and compassion.

Parents of children and adolescents who explore gender in a more liberated way may become concerned that this questioning automatically makes gender reassignment a destination. However, this is not necessarily true.

Children and adolescents may question and explore for the sake of understanding themselves and as a way to challenge the status quo. Trying out a pronoun change, wearing clothes or adopting interests and mannerisms of the opposite sex does not equate to gender dysphoria or mean that the child/teen is transgender.

Growing up can be overwhelming, and it can sometimes be freeing to rise above the oppressive expectations of boys and girls. For some children and teens, just having the space to explore and communicate with supportive parents about the experience is enough. Feeling validated while exploring one’s true self can guide in general identity formation.

Parental Sensitivity

On the other hand, some young people may be treading a painful path of finding their true self and gender identity may be part of this struggle. Parental sensitivity and open mindedness are called for. Determining what your child is questioning, or perhaps even suffering through, requires time and discernment. Only the adolescent can guide this process.

However, parents and others, including mental health and other professionals, can be valuable partners on this journey.

Sometimes, there is a very early and acute awareness of differences related to gender. Fortunately, some youngsters are allowed to gradually learn who they are with supportive families. Transgender people are not necessarily encumbered by emotional distress if they are understood and follow a path that helps them feel as they are meant to be. Thoughtful discernment is vital.

Occasionally, children and adolescents who are gay (or questioning) have the belief that their external gender should switch to match a traditional (heteronormative) notion of sexuality. With guidance, they may be led in the direction of embracing their sexual preferences as they are.

Adolescence is a time of great transformation, and for many, a very difficult time. Youngsters can become derailed by depression, poor body image, sexuality, and identity formation.

People who are working out their gender identity, and are struggling with what to do about it, may benefit from mental health counseling, especially if they are considering gender reassignment. (This in no way implies that transgender people are mentally ill.)

Parents of younger children who they believe are transgender should take the matter seriously and consult with a development professional that can offer guidance. It is up to parents and other caring adults to tune in, listen without judgment, and walk beside the person who is figuring themselves out.

The journey of identity can be rocky. Responding with sensitivity to what the child or teen is experiencing, while avoiding rash reactions, is the best way forward.


Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a licensed developmental psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years, and writes Nola Family’s award-winning “Learning Years” column.


Also, check out “Best Friends” to learn about the affects of boy-girl friendships.

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