Periodically, we get calls from people who are distressed because their child expresses doubts about their gender identity; i.e., a little boy says that he wishes he were a girl or a girl asserts that she feels like she should have been a boy.

This is an upsetting thing for parents to hear and this is completely understandable. We expect our children to be what they appear to be. How should you, as a parent, respond in this situation?

Don't overreact

First of all, try not to overreact. It is important to listen to your child and set your own anxiety aside for the moment. Ask gentle, open-ended questions such as "What makes you feel that way?" "How long have you felt like this?" "Have other people talked with you about this?" "How do you think boys and girls are the same/different in how they feel, what they like, activities they enjoy?" Be willing to hear what your child has to say.

Affirm their strengths

Try to find ways to affirm their gender, not by using stereotypes (i.e. boys must be athletic and girls must love dolls), but by noting strengths of each gender. While some characteristics may be more typical for one gender than another, recognize that this does not mean that the opposite gender might not also display these characteristics. For instance, men are often viewed as strong, while women are seen as weaker. However, not only does each gender have its own ways of being strong, but some men are not physically strong while some women are. This should not be viewed as "unmasculine" or "unfeminine" in these individuals.

Look at their life

Pay attention to what else is going on in the child’s life. Is there a parent who is absent through separation, divorce, illness or preoccupation with work/travel? Do they have peers who are ridiculing them because they do not fit expected gender stereotypes? Have they been abused in any way? All of these things may result in confusion for a child. You may wish to seek counselling.

Be a positive role model

Try to be or find a positive role model for your child of their own gender. Share what it meant to you to grow up as a man/woman and how you came to be comfortable in your own skin. What do you enjoy about being the gender you are?

Over time, if your child still does not seem to reach some level of contentment with who they are, look for a counsellor who can work with you and your child. Call us for a recommendation regarding someone who can help you with this issue (1.800.661.9800).

Wendy Kittlitz is vice-president of counselling and care ministries at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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