Gender Development

There are many theories about gender identity development, and increasingly, about trans identities. Existing theories attempt to explain gender from various perspectives.

You can learn more about gender theories and the differences between sex, gender and gender expression on our Gender page. 

Theories of gender development

Traditional theories of child and youth gender development focus on cognitive and social aspects of development. Cognitive theory focuses on how children mentally make sense of gender as they progress through different stages of development. Social theories centre around how people learn about gender through observation, modeling, and social interactions that reward or discourage certain gendered behaviours. Some scientists are also studying in utero hormones and the brains of trans individuals to search for a biological explanation of trans gender development. While we have no definitive answers about why some people are trans and others are cisgender, scholars are now applying what theories we have about gender development to the experiences of gender creative children and trans youth.

The Canadian Pediatric Society has published a guide on gender development in children which says that most children have a strong sense of their gender identity by the time they are 4 years old.  They may even be able to express that their gender and sex are different. As children approach school age, they may become increasingly consistent and persistent about their gender identities. However, all children and youth will have different gender journeys with varying timelines for when and how they decide to disclose their gender identity and expression.

People writing today about gender development today often take an integrated approach, looking at biology, psychology, socialization culture  and understanding that it is normal for children to express their gender in different ways

However, much of our society still strongly promotes the idea that there are only boys and girls, and that gender and sex assigned at birth should be the same. If children feel pressure from the outside world and from families to conform to gender norms, a child may adapt to the expectations of their environment, perhaps by changing their outward expressions of gender. For some children, the pressure to conform to gender expectations causes high levels of distress. Resilient children conform to their sex assigned at birth while finding creative ways to hold on to their gender identity in private. Later on, given the language, space, and support they need, these children may be able to express their gender identity how they wish.

Diversity of gender creative children

Each child is unique. Their gender is also unique. It involves two important parts: identity and expression. The distinction between these is important for understanding what children are telling us about their gender.

First, some children clearly have a gender identity that is not the same as the sex assigned to them at birth. They are persistent, consistent, and insistent about the gender they know themselves to be. These children may be frustrated with their bodies or think that God made a mistake by giving them the body they have. Nature plays a very strong role in driving both identity and expressions. These children are likely to have a consistent trans identity over time.

Second, there are children who explore gender expression in ways that go against social norms. However, they still identify with their sex assigned at birth. These children are telling us that gender roles and norms don't fit for them, and they need to express themselves differently. Nature, nurture, and culture are all at work here. Later on they may identify as gay or queer, and their gender expressions may or may not continue to be gender non-conforming.

The third group of children are creative in their identities and expressions of gender. This group can be considered non-binary. They have an identity that doesn't fit with boy or girl. They may or may not be unhappy with some aspects of their bodies. Their expressions of gender are often a creative mix, and they may continue with this creativity throughout their lives.

All of these gender selves are healthy. None need to be fixed or changed. Gender health comes from being able to freely identify and express the authentic gender self. Paying attention to what children tell us about their identity and through their expressions can help us to learn how to best support them.

Gender Affirmation Model

Gender affirming care is important for promoting gender health in our children and youth. There is more and more evidence that failing to support gender creative children and trans youth can have serious health consequences. Trying to change a child's behaviour or not allowing them to express their gender freely may lead to feelings of shame and depression.

The Gender Affirmative Model consists of these ideas:

  1. Gender variations are not disorders
  2. Gender variations are healthy expressions
  3. Gender presentations are diverse and varied across cultures
  4. Gender involves an interweaving of nature, nurture and culture
  5. A person's gender may be binary, non-binary, fluid, or multiple
  6. Distress connected to gender most often stems from negative reactions from the outside world

Understanding that gender is complex and diversity is natural is important in learning how to support a gender creative child or trans youth. Studies have shown that children who are listened to and supported (around their gender) do better in terms of mental health than those who are not. For more information on supports available visit our Support for Families page.


These resources include several books and articles that were mentioned in this section. You may wish to explore these further if you are interested in learning more about theories of gender development and how parents and professionals can use this knowledge in supporting children and youth. Visit the Articles, Books & Movies page on how to access these resources.

  • The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press. Brill, S. A., & Pepper, R. (2008). 
  • The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes. New York, NY: The Experiment. Ehrensaft, D. (2016).
  • Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children (3rd Revised ed. edition). New York: The Experiment. Ehrensaft, D., & Menvielle, E. (2011).
  • Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Erickson-Schroth, L. (Ed.). (2014).


What’s next?

Parenting is our next topic. We highlight approaches to parenting that create space for gender exploration and promote healthy gender development. You will also find links to a number of helpful parenting guides.

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