There are a few potentially sensitive topics that parents need to be cognizant of with their children as they develop, and gender identity development is a great example. There are a number of ways parents can both understand gender identity and promote healthy gender identity development in their children, and these approaches are often highly beneficial.
At Sunrise Solutions, gender identity is a common topic we discuss with kids and parents during our family counseling programs, which we offer to clients around Sandy and Draper along with other counseling options like marriage counseling, grief counseling and more. Let’s look at some important concepts surrounding gender identity – how gender and sex are different, how gender identity tends to develop in children of varying ages, some of the stereotypes that have developed here but should be avoided, and some other ways parents can help their children with gender identity development.
Gender Vs. Sex
One of the most important things for both parents and children (of a certain age) to understand about gender identity is what exactly “gender” means, as opposed to other potential terms it may be confused with. At birth, babies are assigned male or female based on their physical characteristics – this is their “sex,” and it is biologically determined.
Gender and gender identity, on the other hand, refer to a person’s internal sense of self. This can refer to the gender they feel they are, whether that aligns with their biological sex or not. It can also include other aspects like gender expression and societal expectations around gender roles.
It’s important to realize that when it comes to gender identity, this isn’t necessarily an either/or thing. Some people may identify as strictly male or female, while others may identify as non-binary or something else entirely. This is a spectrum, and it’s important to allow your child the freedom to explore and express their own gender identity in a safe and supportive environment. While most children’s gender identity will align with their assigned sex at birth, some won’t – and that’s okay.
Gender Identity Development by Age
While this is not meant to be a precise measure, and different children will reach varying stages of gender identity development at slightly different points in their lives, here are some of the general age ranges where certain important elements of gender identity development begin to take shape:
- Age 2 or so: Around this age, children begin understanding the physical differences between boys and girls, but may not yet have a full grasp on the concepts of gender and sex.
- Ages 3 to 4: Here is when children start to identify with their own gender more and understand that it’s different from the opposite sex. They also begin to mimic behaviors they see in same-gender people.
- Age 4 to 5: By this age, most children have a solid sense of their own gender identity and may start to express it more.
- Ages 6 to 7: Children begin to understand that gender identity can be fluid and that not everyone fits into the traditional male or female categories.
How Children Express Gender Identity
Again, this is an area that can vary widely between children. However, some common ways kids express gender identity as it develops include:
- Clothes or physical style: Children may prefer to dress in clothes typically associated with the opposite sex, or they may express themselves through hairstyles or colors.
- Role playing: Kids may mimic behaviors and roles they see in same-gender people, such as playing house or pretending to be a superhero.
- Verbal expression: As language skills develop, children may use words like “girl,” “boy” or “tomboy” to describe themselves.
- Preferred toys or activities: Some kids may naturally gravitate towards certain toys or activities that are typically associated with one gender over another.
Dealing With Stereotypes
Unfortunately, there are many stereotypes and societal expectations surrounding gender that can be harmful to children’s development. Some examples might include:
- Girls should only play with dolls or wear dresses.
- Boys shouldn’t cry or express emotions.
- Only girls like pink, while boys prefer blue.
It’s important for parents to challenge these stereotypes and allow their child the freedom to explore different interests and expressions without judgment or pressure to conform to gender norms. This includes allowing them to play with any toy they choose, regardless of its “intended” gender target audience.
Other Helpful Tips for Parents
- Encourage open communication and a safe space for your child to express their thoughts and feelings about gender.
- Respect their chosen name and pronouns, even if they may differ from the ones assigned at birth.
- Educate yourself on gender identity and its complexities, rather than relying on societal norms or stereotypes.
- Seek professional help if your child is experiencing distress related to their gender identity.
By following these tips and promoting a culture of acceptance and understanding in your home, you can help your child develop a healthy sense of gender identity. Remember, gender identity is unique and personal to each individual – it’s important to support your child in their journey and allow them the space to explore and express themselves.
At Sunrise Solutions, our therapists are trained in working with families on issues related to gender identity development. Contact us today to learn about any of our counseling programs for individuals and families around Sandy, Draper and nearby areas.