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Supporting a Child's Gender Identity and Sexuality

We have recently passed June which is recognised as Pride month; a time to celebrate LGBTQ+ people and communities and raise awareness of issues surrounding these communities.

For those who are not fully informed about gender identity and sexuality, it may seem confusing or overwhelming at first, whilst many people's intention is to be respectful and accepting. As a parental figure, there may be a time when a young person in your care is exploring their own gender identity and/or sexuality. Therefore, it is useful to have an understanding of the terms and resources that are available to help an individual feel comfortable with who they are.

To start off with understanding gender identity and sexuality, there are a few terms that are useful to know:

Sex - refers to biological and physical body parts, i.e. reproductive organs and hormones. A child’s sex and gender are usually assigned at birth.

Gender - describes a person’s internal sense of their identity. For example, someone might identify as a woman or girl, non-binary, transgender, a man or boy, gender fluid, or something else.

Cisgender/cis - someone who identifies as the same gender they were assigned at birth.

Transgender - someone whose gender is different from what they were assigned at birth.

Non-binary/genderqueer/gender fluid - these are gender identities that sit within, outside of, across or between ‘male’ and ‘female'.

Intersex - a person who is born with biology that is not solely male or female. For example, chromosomes, hormone levels or reproductive organs that have female and male characteristics. These variations may not always be seen on the outside and so sometimes they are not diagnosed.

Pronouns - the terms we use to refer to someone, e.g. ‘he/him’, ‘she/her’, ‘they/them', 'ze/zir'. Some individuals use terms other than these to describe their gender.

Sexuality - there are hundreds of sexualities beyond the more commonly known heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual. These are defined by a number of aspects and preferences that a person has and are not defined by their gender.

LGBTQ+ parade walk under large rainbow flag
Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash

Questions around gender identity and sexuality can emerge at any time in a person's life and many different people have varied experiences.

Some people prefer to be private about exploring their gender and sexuality and may find it difficult to talk about. In lots of cases, the way a person identifies may change multiple times throughout their life, which may be associated with changes in pronoun preferences or the way they prefer to be referred to.

Another common misconception is the idea that an individual should 'present' as the gender they identify as. 'Presenting' refers to the way a person may choose to dress, how they style their hair and whether they choose to wear makeup. For example, a transgender boy may use the pronouns 'he/him' yet prefer to dress in feminine clothing and wear makeup, or a person may present as female but identify as non-binary.

You may also hear the terms gender dysphoria and gender identity disorder (GID). These relate to the experience of someone who is transgender; they may feel distressed or depressed due to the difference between their gender identity and the gender or sex they were assigned at birth. This can be in relation to their bodies (physical dysphoria) or social interactions (social dysphoria) such as someone misreading a person’s gender and using the wrong pronouns.

Gender identity is a deep-rooted sense of self. Having a sense of identity in this way is really important for our mental health, wellbeing, and sense of resilience.

How can we support young people who are questioning their gender identity and sexuality?

It can be a confusing and stressful time when someone is exploring who they are. Young people, in particular, may feel that they don't fit in, and can be subject to bullying, peer pressure, mental health problems, stereotypes and even be at risk of harm from others or themselves.

These experiences may leave a person feeling vulnerable and in need of support and understanding from those around them. There are a number of ways you can show that you are willing to understand and help the young person you care for:

Take time to research what your child might be going through. There are lots of resources to help you understand these delicate topics and be better informed when talking to your child. We have listed a few websites at the bottom of this page to help you.

Show your child explicitly that you accept them. This could simply be a conversation addressing the matter, directing your child to online resources or letting them know that you are happy to listen. Many people who are exploring their gender identity and sexuality need the support of those around them and might be afraid of judgement or rejection.

Pay particular attention to signs that your child is struggling with their mental health. These signs can involve withdrawal, changes in behaviour, persistent sadness, extreme emotions, self-harm or talking about suicide, significant changes in eating or sleeping habits or difficulty concentrating. If you are concerned, speak to a professional for advice; a doctor, a helpline or if you are a foster carer, us at Red Kite.

Practice patience and avoid jumping to conclusions. The situation might be frustrating or difficult to understand at times, but keep in mind that it is an important part of a person's ability to express themselves and feel comfortable with who they are. Another point to consider is that just because a child is exploring their gender or sexuality it doesn't necessarily mean that they are transgender, similarly, the process should not be considered a temporary 'phase'; many people explore who they are well into adulthood - everyone is different.

Look into support. There are lots of ways you can support your child, including looking at what support is available at your child’s school, local groups or from local services. At Red Kite, we also offer training to foster carers on topics like supporting a young person's gender identity and sexuality and are here to help you find appropriate support for your child.

Be open-minded. Be willing to learn from your child about what they are going through; you don't need to be an expert on all the terms and details, but instead, focus on listening to how they are feeling. They may also not be ready to talk and not want to be pushed into it, so just let them know that you are there if you need them and that there are people that want to understand and help when and if they are ready.

Ask them how they would like to be referred to. A young person may prefer certain pronouns or wish to go by a different name. Sometimes you may make a mistake, which is perfectly fine and may happen occasionally. Try to correct yourself or allow yourself to be corrected - this will show them that you are making an effort to adapt to them.

Respect boundaries. Plenty of young people can feel embarrassed, ashamed or uncomfortable talking about a range of topics with their parents or guardians, especially things that are deeply personal. Respect if they don't want to answer a question or aren't ready to have a conversation.

It’s understandable if you are feeling upset, anxious, or scared about what your child is going through. All of our foster carers are welcome to openly and honestly talk to us about their experiences and share their thoughts and questions during support groups with other Red Kite foster carers. There are also a number of charities and help services listed below to help you.

Sources and Resources

A national charity that supports transgender children and their parents and guardians

A mental health charity for young people with lots of information and resources

A group that campaigns for LGBTQ+ rights and hosts events, workshops and campaigns

A charity and helpline for children and young people with advice and support for a range of topics

A trans-led charity that specialises in supporting young transgender people aged 8–25

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