Many parents wish for a medical or psychological test that would succinctly “prove” their child’s gender. Unfortunately, no such tests exist. Formerly, guidelines put forth for working with transgender adults seemed to suggest that a person would answer yes or no to certain kinds of questions and a “professional” would make the diagnosis. Having a transgender identity is not something another person can assess. We now know that the only one to make such a determination is that child/person. A transgender person has an internal sense of their identity that is different from how others perceive them to be, based on what is externally visible and to what is presumed to be “normal”. Most people have never given a thought about their gender identity—our intrinsic and innate sense of self—it seems to be a given reality. While being transgender is normal, it is not common.
Aren't they too young to know?
Current studies on gender cognition indicate that a transgender child’s awareness of their gender is commensurate with that of non- transgender children. Though they may know that they feel themselves to be different than how others perceive them to be, a young child generally lacks the vocabulary to express this definitively at an early age. With no images of other children like themselves and with the awareness that this difference is unsettling to adults around them, a child may wait to disclose this information to parents for some time. Some children can express this as early as 2 years old, others do not. “Knowing” from an early age does not make a child any “more or less trans” than an individual who expresses at a later age.
Could this be a phase?
Yes, this could be a phase. A phase may apply to an interest that lasts a few months rather than several years. An adage has been put forth that a transgender child generally expresses their difference insistently, persistently and consistently. This applies well to some children and not so well for others. A parent sometimes finds themselves wishing a child would express insistently, persistently and consistently as it would seem to point toward specific next steps of support, and yet, their child may express their gender difference in a variety of ways. This may seem as though their child is uncertain or confused. Whether it is or isn’t a phase, what we know now is that supporting a child while they are in an exploratory phase (as one might support an exploration of any other kind) has the best “outcome”. No child has ever expressed disappointment in the fact that a parent supported them in any endeavor whether or not it proved to have any permanence.
What if they change their mind?
With the above thoughts in mind, if during a period of exploration and information gathering, a child “changes their mind”, the act of supporting them has done no harm. A name or pronoun once changed, can be changed again. Hairstyles can be changed “back”. Even certain medical interventions can be discontinued and/or remedied. Having the chance to actually explore and “try things on” is the only way to gain salient information.
How is this different than being gay?
Most people have a familiarity with what it means to be gay or lesbian—someone who has a sexual orientation toward persons of their same sex. The term transgender feels like it somehow falls into that definition. However, being transgender not a sexual orientation. We all have an innate sense of self, our gender identity, that is separate from the people to whom we have an attraction.
Did I somehow cause this?
It is understandable that parents want to understand the causes of differences in gender identification. Many parents wonder if their childrearing practices had any influence in the formation of their child’s identity. Recent studies shed light on age of gender cognition and new evidence points toward neurobiological origins of gender identity. But ultimately, as we wait for more definitive information and answers, parents recognize that their child needs guidance and support now.