There is no simple test to tell if a child is transgender. Experts often refer to the idea of insistence, consistency, and persistence in terms of gauging whether a child is just going through a phase or not. This means the more insistent a child is, and the longer that insistence lasts, the less likely they are to change their mind about being a different gender.
While the following are possible signs of a child being transgender, there are no certainties.
What Does Transgender Mean?
Transgender – a person who experiences a gender identity or gender expression that is different from their assigned sex (at birth). Transgender teens tend to be an umbrella term, meaning in addition to individuals whose gender identity is opposite of their assigned sex, it includes individuals who do not consider themselves exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine (sometimes referred to as genderqueer, non-binary, bigender, pangender, or gender fluid. Some medical professionals categorize transgender as a third gender. Important to note is that transgender identification is independent of sexual orientation, and those who are transgender may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, etc.
Gender dysphoria – the distress or struggle a person endures due to the incongruence of the sex and gender they feel they are in comparison to the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. This means the assigned sex and gender do not match the person’s gender identity.
Possible Signs of Transgender Child
Many children engage in behavior that challenges the typical gender norms and stereotypes and do not identify as transgender at all. Nonetheless, there are some possible signs that could indicate a child is transgender or the presence of gender confusion in a child.
- Lack of interest in “gendered” activities – if your child is transgender or questioning their gender identity, you may notice them wanting to participate in activities typically associated with the opposite sex. Of course, a child who is not transgendered may be interested in toys and/or games associated with the other sex, so it is important to not automatically assume this behavior means your child is transgender.
- Hairstyle – typically, when a child is around 4 or 5 years old, they begin to want to have a say in their haircut and style. Transgender children tend to be much more vocal about their haircut and/or style and may protest if parents final say differs from what they want. Although every child is different, in general, transgender girls desire to have shorter hair, while transgender boys prefer the ability to grow their hair out.
- Disliking their name – if your child has a gendered-aligned name, it might be difficult for them to accept if they are trans. If you notice your child talking about changing their name, or requesting others call them by a different name (especially one that is the opposite gender), this could be a sign they are struggling with gender-related issues.
- Referring to themselves as the opposite gender – if you hear your child referring to themselves as the opposite gender (i.e. – your daughter says she is a boy), this could indicate they are transgender (or the presence of gender confusion). Often times, a transgender child will say, “I am a girl/boy” rather than “I wish I was a girl/boy.” If you recognize this behavior in your child, ask them “why” they are referring to themselves as a boy/girl.
- Bathroom behavior – a clear sign of the presence of gender identity issues in any child is their use of bathrooms opposite of their gender identity at birth. Yet, more often than not, this is not the first change in bathroom behavior parents may notice. Instead, transgender or gender-confused children may have accidents due to feeling inclined to “hold it” instead of walk into the bathroom designated for the other sex. Hopefully, the child is able to verbalize this to a parent or trusted adult. But if you notice changes in your child’s behavior around using the bathroom, it is okay to ask.
- Pronoun changes – as more people come out as transgender, the need for gender-neutral pronouns becomes apparent. Personal pronouns are important for all individuals. But for those who are questioning their gender identity, personal pronouns can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection by others. If your child is referring to themselves with gender pronouns opposite of their born gender identity, they could be transgender. Notice if your child feels more comfortable being referred to as the other sex; ask questions about their preferred pronouns.
- The desire to shop in the opposite gender’s clothing section – as with hairstyle, when a child is around 4 or 5 years old, they begin to want to have a say in what they wear. If, when you take your child shopping, they choose to shop in the opposite gender’s section, this might indicate your child is transgender. Of course, this could simply be a sign they want to experiment with different fashions, as many children dress and play in ways that challenge gender norms.
- Participating in opposite gender sports – while this is a large generalization, if your child expresses interest in participating in sports designated for the opposite gender, they may be transgender.
- Distress – an important indicator of any struggle or confusion in a child is the presence of distress. In terms of a child who is transgender (or questioning their gender identity), distress may show up in various ways such as daily arguments regarding clothing choices before school.
- Depression and/or suicidal thoughts – unfortunately, depression and suicidal thoughts are often present in transgender individuals and youth struggling with gender identity issues. The source of the depression may stem from a variety of concerns including:
- Difficulty accepting their identity,
- Fear of what it would be like to live as the gender they feel on the inside
- Rejection from peers, family, and/or friends
If you notice signs of depression in your transgender teen, or they are expressing the presence of suicidal thoughts, it is important to seek professional help.
How to Support Your Transgender Child
Whether you a sure your child is transgender or uncertain as to whether they are questioning their gender, it is always helpful to seek professional support. Doctors recommend finding a therapist or counselor who specializes in gender identity issues and children. Unfortunately, many parents do not seek outside intervention for their child, due to hopes of it just being a phase. Regardless of if your child is experiencing something temporary, or truly questioning their identity, having a mental health professional can be extremely helpful.
A therapist can help your child (and the family unit as a whole) decide which changes to make, and the timeline of those changes. A therapist can also refer you to other supports and resources such as support groups, medical doctors, etc. If your child is transgender or questioning their gender identity, it is vital you (as the parent) have a place to express fears and confront personal attitudes about gender while not in the presence of your child.
Additionally, there is no shortage of information available for parents in the process of navigating this difficult terrain. It is important to educate yourself, not only for the purpose of knowing possible signs to look out for, but also to ask educated questions to your child and professionals.
Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).