Discussing Gender Identity with your Child

In our evolving world, people’s beliefs and ideas are shifting. In many ways, society, especially western society, is becoming more progressive in terms of gender identity and expression. The most recent Gallop poll estimated that the number of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (or Questioning) and other adults (LGBTQ+) in the United States has risen by 4.5% since 2017 – this increase illustrates our changing and evolving society. As the number of individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ continues to rise, children will be exposed to individuals who may identify as transgender or nonbinary. This blog post intends to provide guidance for parents as they navigate questions their child may have about others’ diversity or their own gender identity.

A few important terms:

Gender refers to the socially created characteristics of men and women.

Sex refers to the different biological characteristics of men and women.

Gender identity is best described as how you feel inside. Your gender identity may not match your assigned sex at birth.

Gender expression is communicated by how you choose to dress or act. Like gender identity, the way you decide to express your gender may not align with the traditional classifications of male or female. A common example could be “tomboys,” which is characterized by a girl who behaves in a manner that has been traditionally considered to be male – this could include dressing in clothing that is not overtly feminine or engaging in physical games and activities that, in some cultures, are considered to be within a male domain, such as football.

Gender binary is a cultural belief that there are only two genders (male and female).

Gender dysphoria is described by the American Psychiatric Association as the psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity. Gender dysphoria can occur at different points in a person’s life, and the intensity of the angst varies among individuals .

Sexuality is the gender(s) of those you are sexually and romantically attracted to. This word does not refer to one’s own gender, so sexuality is not the topic of this blog.

Nonbinary is defined as a person who feels like their gender does not fall on the gender binary – they do not feel entirely male or female. Sometimes those who are nonbinary prefer to use they/them pronouns.

As you continue to read and gain a full understanding of gender identity and expression, you should recognize and appreciate these terms. You might already be familiar with a few of these terms and their definitions as they’re becoming more commonly used in casual and political settings. Remember, when your children ask questions, use the correct terminology within the right context, so your children will understand and accept diversity in individuals.

What if your child asks about someone else’s gender?

Inspired by Early Childhood National Centers, here are a few examples of what your child could ask or say and the possible answers you could give.

  • Child:  Why does Sally want to play so many sports? Girls aren’t even good at sports!
    • Parent: Sally is allowed to have whatever hobbies she wants. Neither boys or girls are better than the other at any activity.
  • Child:  Why wasn’t that guy wearing pants? He had a skirt on!
    • Parent: It’s okay if he wants to wear a skirt. He isn’t hurting anyone by doing it. We shouldn’t judge anyone based on what they like to wear.
  • Child:  Luke only wants to play princesses. But he’s not a princess if he’s a boy.
    • Parent: Maybe he just wants to play pretend. Don’t you think being a princess would be fun?

At a young age, children are obsessed with following rules. These rules can include traditional gender binary guidelines (Trautner et al., 2005). This obsession fades over time, but young children may find it difficult to grasp the concept of such things as women who have short hair (when women are supposed to have long hair) or men who wear dresses (when men are not supposed to wear dresses). To help your child understand that the way someone dresses or presents themself does not always indicate their gender, try using examples they might see every day. For example, your child comes home from school and tells you about what they did during recess. They describe meeting a boy from another class who had long hair. Your child is insistent he should have shorter hair because he’s a boy. To help your child recognize that gender is not defined by external characteristics, you might explain to them that boys and girls don’t need to have a specific length or style of hair, and their hairstyle is their own choice based on their preferences or what they like. At this time and depending on your child’s age, you might also be able to explain the difference between sex and gender.

What if your child starts questioning their own gender?

If your child begins to question their own gender, this could be a crucial time in their journey of self-discovery. During this period, you should provide your child with your unwavering support. Practice patience and understanding if they decide to make changes as they explore their true self. For example, your child may want to change their name from the one they were given at birth. Understand that your child is not rebelling against you – they are trying to find the best way to express themselves and having a name that matches their identity may be a step closer to reaching that goal.

As your child begins to feel more comfortable experimenting with their gender expression, allow them to publicly express their gender. This teaches them that they should not stifle themselves and their gender expression for the comfort of others. Every person deserves to feel comfortable in our own skin; the same goes for the members of our youngest generations.

Your child may face discrimination or even cruelty from those who do not possess the knowledge and understanding of your child’s experience. Remember, any reactions are not your child’s fault and do not blame your child for how others respond. Be mindful, however, that your child may experience this type of behavior, and certain reactions may impact their mental health.

Our perception of gender is evolving, which highlights your need to stay current on information surrounding the topic. If you have questions about gender diverse populations, it’s safe to assume that your child does too. Understanding and teaching your child the proper terminology, and answering their questions with genuine and thoughtful replies opens the dialogue to teach them about compassion for everyone. In the event your child begins to question their own gender identity, you can be prepared to help your child feel loved and supported by their family as they continue their life journey.


Research Breakthrough for SIDS

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is a common form of sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) that occurs in infants who are less than 1 year old and usually during sleep or within a baby’s sleep area (CDC, 2021). In the United States, approximately 3,400 infants die from a SUID every year, and more than 1,000 of those unexplained deaths are attributed to SIDS (CDC, 2021). This makes SIDS a leading cause of death among infants.

In a new study, researchers found a lower presence of an enzyme, which helps regulate a baby’s breathing, in babies whose deaths were categorized as SIDS. While the cause of SIDS remains unknown, and is believed to be dependent on several factors or causes (Harrington et al., 2022), this finding is a breakthrough in research, and it potentially offers healthcare professionals a better understanding of infant sleep-related deaths.

The CDC (2021) recommends parents and caregivers create safe sleeping areas for babies by doing the following:
  • Place your baby on their back for all sleep times – naps and at night.
  • Use a firm, flat sleep surface, such as a mattress in a safety-approved crib, covered by a fitted sheet.
  • Keep your baby’s sleep area, like a crib or bassinet, in the same room where you sleep until your baby is at least 6 months old or, ideally, until your baby is 1 year old.
  • Keep soft bedding items such as blankets, pillows, bumper pads, and soft toys out of your baby’s sleep area.
  • Do not cover your baby’s head or allow your baby to overheat.
Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, 2016) offers the following recommendations to help reduce the risk of SIDS:
  • Do not smoke during pregnancy, and do not smoke or allow anyone to smoke around your baby.
  • Do not drink alcohol or use illegal drugs during pregnancy.
  • Breastfeed your baby.
  • Visit your baby’s healthcare provider for regular checkups. Your baby will receive important shots to prevent diseases.
  • Offer your baby a pacifier at nap time and bedtime. If you are breastfeeding your baby, you may want to wait to use a pacifier until breastfeeding is well established.


Additional Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

American Academy of Pediatrics


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016, November 1). SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: Updated 2016 recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environment. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162938. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-2938

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 28). Sudden unexpected infant death and sudden infant death syndrome. https://www.cdc.gov/sids/data.htm#:~:text=SIDS%20rates%20declined%20considerably%20from,when%20rates%20began%20to%20increase

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, June 15). About SUID and SIDS. https://www.cdc.gov/sids/about/index.htm

Harrington, C. T., Al Hafid, N., & Waters, K. A. (2022, June). Butyrylcholinesterase is a potential biomarker for sudden infant death syndrome. eBioMedicine, 80, 104041. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ebiom.2022.104041

Working on Socialization with your Child

Online learning, social distancing, and drastic changes in how families socialize outside of the home have decreased the number of opportunities children have to learn social skills.  When children socialize with peers, they learn important skills they will use throughout their lives, like understanding expectations, sharing, or showing compassion to others around them.

Below are a few ideas about how to work on socialization with your child. Using these suggestions could help you encourage your child to learn important social skills that will be transferable in their interactions with others.

Toddlers 1-3 years old:

  • Model sharing with your child.
    • Tell your child what you are sharing and note how nice it is to share.
  • Assist with turn-taking.
    • Show your child how to share with another child by handing the other child something and verbalizing what you are doing.
  • Have realistic expectations for your child’s level of socialization and age.
    • Understand that your child may not be ready to share with others yet, and that is okay!

Children 3-5 years old:

  • Help your child work through and resolve conflicts with peers.
    • Encourage your child to consider a solution to a situation by saying, “I see you both want to play with blocks. Would splitting the blocks into two piles let both you and your friend play with the blocks?”
  • Offer praise when your child shows a behavior you want them to continue.
    • When you see your child showing behavior you would like to see again, encourage them by telling them how much you like that behavior.
  • Help your child learn about tolerance and learn how to accept people who are different from they are.
    • If your child becomes frustrated with or curious about people who they may see as different from they are, talk to them about how being different is okay and how everyone is different in various ways.

Children 5-10 years old:

  • Use active listening to discuss different interactions your child has with peers.
    • While your child is talking to you or telling you about a situation, focus on them and stay relaxed. Reassure your child you are listening to them by looking them in the eye, kneeling to their level, and repeating what they have said to you.
  • Help them express their feelings about peer interactions.
    • When your child tells you something, echo back what they have told you. Follow up with “it sounds like you are feeling” with whatever emotion they seem to be showing. This encourages your child to express themself.
  • Use praise and encouragement often as you notice positive behaviors.
    • Offer praise when your child communicates and expresses themself to you.

Adolescents 10-18 years old:

  • Use effective communication strategies with your child.
    • Use strategies like active listening in which you limit distractions (e.g., cell phones) and keep your focus on your child or incorporate family meetings into your monthly routine so all family members have a chance to be heard.
  • Create an environment that outlines expectations and healthy boundaries for all family members to follow.
    • Set clear rules and boundaries for topics like digital device usage, socializing with friends, and household expectations. Reinforce expectations in regular communications or through written action plans (e.g., Family Media Action Plan).
  • Discuss what healthy relationships, including healthy romantic relationships, look like.
    • Talk with your child about what relationships, both friendships and romantic relationships, should look like. Remind them that communication and boundaries are healthy and important aspects of any relationship.

Although social interactions and the way we socialize, in general, have changed over the last few years, children still need to learn healthy behaviors and positive communication skills. If you are concerned about your child’s social skills or have questions about their developmental milestones, please take time to review the resources below and have a conversation with your child’s pediatrician or your family physician. For further information about positive parenting and specifics about your child’s developmental expectations, please go to https://thrive.psu.edu to register for the online parent-education modules available at no cost to all families.

Additional Resources

Information for Parents of Infants and Toddlers: https://www.cdc.gov/parents/infants/index.html

Information for Parents with Children: https://www.cdc.gov/parents/children/index.html

Information for Parents with Teens: https://www.cdc.gov/parents/teens/index.html

Family Media Action Plan: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx