Puberty — the transition from childhood to adolescence — brings many changes to your child’s body, mind, and identity. For most kids, puberty begins between the ages of 8 and 13, when specialized glands in the brain and throughout the body begin to secrete hormones that initiate changes like an increase in height and the development of body hair. (1; 2) Although everyone’s experience of puberty is unique, with kids reaching milestones like the growth of breasts or voice changes at different times, pubertal development usually follows a predictable pattern.
For kids who are gender-nonconforming, development during puberty might look different than what’s considered typical. If you have a child who is gender-nonconforming, intersex, or questioning, read on for some tips on what you might expect and how to support your child.
Here’s what it means to be “gender-nonconforming”
Gender-nonconformity — also known as gender-variance, gender-diversity, or gender-expansiveness — is an umbrella term that describes an outward presentation of traits typically associated with the “opposite” gender, and encompasses a wide range of experiences and ways of being. (3)
Being gender-nonconforming is not the same as being transgender
Not all gender-nonconforming kids are trans. Some kids might identify with the sex they were assigned at birth but express themselves in ways that are considered atypical for members of their birth sex: Gender-nonconforming boys may prefer stereotypically feminine clothing, hair styles, or types of play, whereas gender-nonconforming girls might gravitate towards stereotypically “masculine” forms of expression.
Other gender-nonconforming youth are transgender and feel distress because their gender identity is different from their assigned birth sex: A child who was assigned female at birth might have a strong sense of being a boy, or vice versa. This is known as gender dysphoria. (4)
Some gender-nonconforming youth don’t identify with a single gender and may experience themselves as nonbinary (having characteristics of more than one gender), agender (not having a gender), or genderfluid (moving between genders). (5)
Some gender-nonconforming youth may be intersex and have bodies with physical, chromosomal, or hormonal characteristics of both sexes.
Puberty can look different for gender-nonconforming youth
Puberty is a time when many kids are exploring their identity, developing an independent sense of self, and determining their own priorities, values, and goals. (6) For gender-nonconforming kids, puberty can bring more clarity to their identity: Research suggests that children who experience gender dysphoria during puberty are more likely to be transgender than those who exhibit gender-nonconforming behavior as children but don’t experience distress about their assigned sex. (7)
Intersex people don’t fit into binary sex categories and may develop differently during puberty than their peers. Some intersex people develop characteristics typically associated with those of a different gender. For example, a girl might begin to develop lots of facial hair or a deeper voice. (8) Although it’s very common for boys who aren’t intersex to develop breast tissue during puberty, a dramatic change in body composition, like developing wider hips and a narrower waist in addition to the growth of breasts, may indicate an intersex condition. Other intersex people, who have conditions like androgen insensitivity syndome or Swyer syndrome, may not show any signs of puberty at all. (8)
Challenges gender-nonconforming youth may experience during puberty
For kids whose assigned sex doesn’t match their gender identity, who express themselves in ways considered typical of a different gender, or who feel that they don’t fit into a single gender category, the physical changes of puberty may be uncomfortable or confusing. (4) While many kids find that body changes during puberty make them feel awkward, clumsy, or self-conscious, for gender-nonconforming people, these changes can result in deep distress. (9)
Intersex youth may exerpience feelings of isolation or confusion if they don’t develop signs of puberty along with their peers, or if they develop in unexpected ways. (8)
Gender-nonconforming kids may feel pressure to fit in during adolescence, or experience bullying or harassment based on their gender expression. (9)
How parents can support gender nonconforming kids through puberty
The best way to support your child through puberty is to love and accept them, regardless of their identity. Some parents worry that their child will be picked on or discriminated against because they don’t conform to gender norms. But demonstrating consistent support — rather than attempting to change your child or insist that they conform to social expectations around their assigned sex — can help them to successfully navigate the challenges of puberty. Research suggests that parental acceptance improves mental health outcomes for gender-nonconforming youth, and protects them from experiencing psychological problems like stress, anxiety, and depression. (10)
If you have concerns that your child is experiencing bullying or mistreatment at school or in other settings, advocating on their behalf lets them know that they are not alone and can help to create a more welcoming environment for them and other youth who are perceived as “different.” Genderspectrum.org has extensive resources for families, educators, youth, and other community members to help support gender-diverse kids.
Ensuring that your child’s pediatrician or other healthcare provider is knowledgeable about and comfortable with working with gender-diverse youth is an important way to support them as they experience the changes of puberty. Connecting them to an experienced and caring mental health professional, if necessary, can give them a safe place to express their own feelings and concerns.
The bottom line
Supporting your child doesn’t mean having all the answers. Questions around how to approach gender diversity, especially for youth, are highly controversial. Because every person is unique, there is no “one-size-fits-all” way to help gender-diverse kids thrive. Determining what will work best for your child should be a collaborative process in which they have a voice, along with, in some cases, mental health or healthcare professionals. If your child is showing signs of depression or distress, or if you’re concerned about their mental health, CDC.gov has a list of mental health resources and support services for gender-nonconforming and LGBTQ kids.