understanding gender identity - for family and friends

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The physical features that you were born with (your biological sex) do not necessarily define your gender.

About gender identity

Gender identity is generally developed very early in life. It's about how you experience or perceive your gender, how you show this to others, and how you want others to treat you.

The physical features that you were born with (your biological sex) do not necessarily define your gender. Although gender has traditionally been divided into ‘male’ and ‘female’, it is now widely recognised that gender is not that simple.

The gender spectrum includes numerous identities including male, female, a mixture of both, no gender, a fluid gender, or another gender. For a more complete list of terms, see AIFS’ Glossary of Common Terms.

Some people may not have a label for what they are experiencing and some might be questioning their gender identity. This can be a confusing and stressful time for some young people.

Whilst people who experience gender diversity identify with a range of different terms, ‘trans and gender diverse’ is often used as an umbrella term to describe people who identify with a gender that is different to the one assigned to them at birth.

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If a young person has confided in you about their gender diversity be sure to respect their privacy and ask before sharing their information with anyone else. They may not be comfortable letting other people know yet and it is very important that the young person remains in control of their personal information.

Gender diversity does not cause mental health problems. Trans and gender diverse young people may be more likely to experience discrimination or stressful situations that contribute to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, self harm and suicide. Some common experiences that can affect the wellbeing of trans and gender diverse young people include:

 

  • feeling ‘different’ from other people around them
  • not understanding their internal experiences if they are surrounded by gender conforming people
  • being subjected to or witnessing bullying about their gender identity, whether verbal, physical, or online
  • being discriminated against about their gender identity (note, this is against the law in Australia)
  • feeling pressure to label, deny or change their gender identity
  • feeling worried that their gender identity won’t be accepted by family and friends, along with the possibility of being rejected or isolated
  • feeling unsupported or misunderstood by family, friends, fellow students or workers
  • feeling stressed and anxious in response to the pressure to conform to their biological sex
  • experiencing religious or cultural pressures or rejection about their gender diversity
  • experiencing insensitivity when seeking support from medical and other support services
  • feeling confused about what being gender diverse might mean for them and their future (e.g. do I have to transition?)x


These pressures can be very stressful, especially when combined with all the other issues associated with growing up, such as managing school or university, finding a job, forming relationships and making sense of their identity and place in the world.

Things to look out for in your young person include:

  • changes in mood – e.g., feeling sadder more anxious, or more irritable than usual
  • changes in behaviour – e.g., being less talkative, becoming withdrawn or being more aggressive
  • changes in relationships – e.g., falling out with friends or their partner, or conflict with family
  • changes in appetite – e.g., eating more or less than usual, or losing or gaining weight rapidly
  • changes in sleep patterns – e.g., not sleeping enough, or sleeping too much
  • changes in coping – e.g., feeling overwhelmed or tired of life
  • changes in thinking – e.g., more negative thoughts or thoughts of self harm or suicide.

It's normal to experience some of these changes from time to time. When these changes last longer than expected and begin to interfere with a young person's life, their study, work and friendships, talk with them about seeking help. A good place to start is their general practitioner (GP), their local headspace centre or eheadspace (online or by phone).

The role of family and friends

Families can have a major impact on the wellbeing of trans and gender diverse young people. Young people that experience conflict with, or rejection by, their families and loved ones are at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety. They are also more at risk of homelessness, economic instability, self harm and suicide.

Trans and gender diverse young people who come from families that fully accept their gender identity have better overall physical and mental health, higher self-esteem, and are more likely to believe they will have a good life as a gender diverse adult. Every bit of support from families (e.g. use of preferred name and pronouns) can make a difference to the young person's risk of suicide, self harm, general and mental health, and substance use concerns.

How to support a trans and gender diverse young person

Improve your own understanding and knowledge of gender identity through research, reading and contacting support groups. Taking the time to learn takes the pressure off your young person having to educate you and shows that you want to support them. (See below, Other Useful Websites.)

  • talk in an open, non-judgmental way about gender identity

  • express acceptance and provide support

  • ask how you can best support them

  • request that family members and other people respect your young person’s gender identity and expression, including using their

  • preferred name and pronouns

  • provide resources on gender diversity to family and friends who are close to your young person (with your young person’s permission)

  • allow space for your young person to explore their gender identity and to change the way they express or define their gender

  • welcome any of your young person’s friends or their partner, regardless of gender or sexuality, to family events

  • reassure your young person they can have a full, happy future as an adult

  • remember that small changes in the way you show acceptance and support can make a difference in reducing your young person’s risk of suicide and self harm, and can improve general and mental health outcomes

  • encourage your young person to get further advice and support at headspace or eheadspace if they are going through a tough time.

Looking after yourself

Supporting a young person who may be trans or gender diverse can be a positive and uplifting experience and it might also feel overwhelming. While some people may have a good idea about their young person’s gender identity, for some, learning about it may come as a shock. It can be difficult to process these emotions while trying to be supportive of your young person. You may need some time to understand your own emotions, discover more about gender identity, and get some support.

Remember, you are not alone, there are many families in Australia on this journey and there are many professional supports and resources available to you.

Don't forget to look after your own needs too and reach out for extra support if you or other family members need it. Check out our tips on self-care for family and friends, talk to someone you trust, or seek professional help.

For immediate help contact triple zero (000) if it is an emergency

National 24/7 crisis services


Additional youth support services

  • Find your nearest headspace centre or contact eheadspace, our phone and online service (12-25 years)
  • qheadspace: Chat anonymously with other young people who identify as LGBTIQA+ and ask questions of our headspace queer peers (12-25 years)
  • Qlife: Chat to a volunteer LGBTIQA+ counsellor over the phone or through web-chat every day from 3pm to midnight (all ages)
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (5-25 years)
  • ReachOut (under 25 years)
  • SANE Australia: 1800 187 263 (18+ years)
  • Minus18: Have lots of resources about gender diversity for young people and their family and friends
  • Raising Children Network: Has compiled a list of services, support groups and resources for gender diverse young people and their family and friends
  • The Genderbread Person - ❤ It's Pronounced Metrosexual

For more information or support, to find your nearest headspace centre or for online and telephone support, visit eheadspace.

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website. Transgender Victoria contributed to an earlier edition of this page.

Last reviewed 8 December 2020

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