Better World

When Do Transgender Kids Know It?

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The Big Idea: Transgender kids often have that trans identity by adolescence, and sometimes as young as 18-24 months. Kids whose families are accepting and supportive of their identity are much more likely to thrive.

Last year, when my 4 year-old son saw his big sister wearing her fancy dress for Thanksgiving, he wanted to wear one too. No problem–we knew we’d let him wear whatever made him feel fancy & festive, even if it raised some eyebrows among the relatives.

But it got me wondering–how young do transgender kids typically “know it”?

Turns out kids often know by adolescence, and sometimes as young as 18-24 months.

Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy, medical director of the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says:

The truth is that we don’t really know whether that child who is gender non-conforming in childhood is going to go on to have a trans identity in adolescence or adulthood. What we do know is that by the time kids reach adolescence, if they have a gender identity that is different from their sex assigned at birth, that it is very likely that they will continue on to have that gender identity.

Another expert, University of Washington psychology professor Christina Olson, said recently that at her Transyouth Project, “We have heard reports as early as when their kids start talking, as soon as they could say words like girl and boy. So a lot of parents say 18 months, 2 years.”

In other words, the fact that my son wants to wear a princess dress doesn’t mean he’ll be transgender five years from now. He might, or he might not. (For now, he’s done with dresses but still won’t wear pants. Which is going to make this one coooooold winter).

But it does mean we need to take his gender expression seriously. Because some transgender kids DO know it by pre-school.

Here’s why this matters so much: trans youth face extremely high rates of suicide, depression and violence. But having a supportive family can make a *huge* difference.

tranks kids

Dr. Olson has done one of the first long-term studies, and it shows just how important family acceptance is:

So far, her team’s research has found that transgender children who transition [e.g. start living as the gender with which they identify] at a young age do remarkably well as long as the family is supportive. Transgender children aged 3 to 12 who live as the other gender have shown levels of depression equal to a control group of cisgender children, and the transgender group had only minimally more anxiety. [Reuters]

In other words, while transgender kids often face significant mental health challenges, when kids in this study were allowed to express their gender identity and their family backed them up, they did fine. That’s huge.

(In case it’s helpful, “cisgender” is the opposite of “transgender”–it just means kids who identify as the gender they’re assigned at birth).

Here’s a final quote from an expert that really stuck with me. David Breland, who works with transgender adolescents as director of the Gender Clinic at Seattle Children’s Hospital said:

“Listen to the child. They tell us who they are. We don’t force anything on them. By affirming who they are, there’s definitely better evidence that they do well mentally and physically. So, how could that be wrong?”

This seems like great advice–whether it’s about gender or any other aspect of a kid’s identity.

Ailen is the Managing Editor at ParentsTogether. She lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband and two spirited boys.