Creating a safe space for a child to explore their gender identity will contribute to positive mental health outcomes. This resource provides an overview of ways to support a child who is questioning their gender identity or who has come out as trans or gender diverse. It is not designed to give medical or psychological expertise and advice on working with trans and gender diverse children. For this the Australian Standards of Care and Treatment Guidelines for trans and gender diverse children and adolescents (‘Standards of Care and Treatment’) are a great place to start. It is also recommended practitioners connect with a gender specialist in their state. You can download a Referral Matrix of support services here.
The following are just a few key terms – longer lists of definitions can be found in several of the resources suggested at the end of this guide:
Trans and gender diverse
“These are umbrella terms that describe people who identify their gender as different to the legal sex that was assigned to them at birth.” (ACON language guide, 2017)
There is a difference between sex, which is a biological characteristic, and gender, which is how someone feels and identifies. Not everyone who is trans will want to have an identity of being ‘trans’ but rather will just want to live in their affirmed gender. This is important to keep in mind when supporting a child who may simply see themselves as a boy or a girl, not as a trans girl or trans boy.
In addition, whilst many trans people might use binary terms, such as boy or girl to describe their gender identity, language and ways of describing identity are constantly evolving. It is good practice to ask a person who is trans or gender diverse what language they are using to describe their identity.
“This is an umbrella term for any number of gender identities that sit within, outside of, across or between the spectrum of the male and female binary. A non-binary person might identify as gender fluid, trans masculine, trans feminine, agender, bigender etc.” (ACON Language Guide, 2017).
If a child identifies as non-binary, they might say that they don’t feel like a boy or a girl, or describe not feeling like they fit into society’s expectations and gender stereotypes of how to behave. This child might want to be referred to with the pronoun ‘they/them’. It is important to consider here that gender is socially constructed and often strictly controlled. What is considered a masculine trait in one culture, community or family may be the main role of the female in another. Historically gender roles also shift, and we have also seen these changes across generations. Think about how gendered toys and clothing are and the way that before a child is even born, people will often ask what sex it is.
“The distress or unease sometimes experienced from being misgendered and/or when someone’s gender identity and body personally don’t feel connected or congruent.
Gender dysphoria does not equal being trans or gender diverse. Many trans and gender diverse people do not experience gender dysphoria and if they do it may cease with access to gender affirming health care.” (ACON Language Guide, 2017)
Language is very powerful and labelling a child with ‘gender dysphoria’ can be quite stigmatising and give the impression that they are disordered or have a medical problem. The term ‘gender dysphoria’ is listed in the DSM5, where it was previously called ‘gender identity disorder’. One of the main reasons for changing the label was to recognise that being transgender is not a mental illness.
Often the distress a child experiences comes from not being listened to and told that they must be the gender that they were assigned at birth. Particularly in the early stages, using language like ‘exploring gender identity’ steers the discussion away from giving a ‘diagnosis’ and allows for a less stigmatising conversation.