Social anxiety can be difficult to grapple with, especially during childhood. This is particularly true for children who don't conform to stereotypical gender norms and therefore may not be accepted by their peers. For example, a boy might like activities and clothing that are more like what the girls in his classroom like than the other boys. When children learn what boys and girls are supposed to say, do, and look like, gender-nonconforming youth tend to feel more anxious due to social rejection compared to children who do not defy gender norms.

We wondered whether parents' acceptance of gender atypicality could mitigate social anxiety among gender-expansive children. "Gender expansive" is a broad label that applies to any child who does not conform to gender stereotypic norms and can include children who are transgender although our study did not.

To explore this, we conducted a two-year longitudinal study of the links between children's gender atypicality, social anxiety, and parental acceptance. The study, which included 209 kindergarteners, 206 second graders, and 206 fourth graders, examined the connection between children's gender atypicality and their teachers' reports of children's social anxiety over the course of a year. We measured gender atypicality by asking children how similar they are to girls and to boys overall and on specific dimensions such as appearance, mannerisms, interests, and behavioral preferences. From these ratings we created measures of whether the children felt more or less like same-gender and other-gender peers.

Are Gender-Expansive Children More Socially Anxious?

Surprisingly, the answer is no. Contrary to our expectations, children's gender atypicality was not directly associated with their social anxiety one year later. This was true whether gender atypicality was due to children feeling more dissimilar to their own gender or similar to the other gender. Being gender expansive (not feeling like one's own-gender peers or feeling a lot like other-gender peers) did not necessarily lead to social anxiety.

Does Parents' Gender Diversity Acceptance Buffer Against Social Anxiety?

What role do parents play? We examined whether the link between children's gender typicality and social anxiety depends on parental acceptance and children's grade levels. Parents reported their acceptance of gender typicality by rating eight items about how acceptable it would be if they had a daughter/son who had a stereotypically feminine/ masculine personality; liked stereotypically feminine/masculine activities and interests; had stereotypically feminine/masculine mannerisms (like ways of talking or walking); and liked to dress in a stereotypically feminine/masculine way.

Overall, parent acceptance mattered more for younger children than older children. For kindergartners, parents' acceptance of gender atypicality protected children from social anxiety, regardless of their gender typicality. For second graders, parental rejection of gender atypicality, not acceptance, drove children's social anxiety scores. For 4th graders, parental acceptance did not protect gender atypicality from social anxiety.

It's possible that older gender-expansive students need social support beyond the family, including peers and mentors in the greater community, to buffer them from social rejection.

Implications for Mental Health of Gender-Expansive Children

Parental acceptance of gender nonconformity (and lack thereof) affects the mental health of even young children. Parents who embrace and support their children's interests and attitudes, regardless of gender norms, create a nurturing environment that fosters emotional resilience.

Parental acceptance involves acknowledging and encouraging children's unique preferences, whether playing with a wide range of toys, expressing themselves through clothing choices, or exploring activities that do not conform to traditional expectations.

Parents can foster acceptance by talking to children in ways that validate their feelings and experiences and reinforce the idea that it's okay to be different. Offering a safe space for open communication allows children to express themselves freely, knowing they have the support of their parents.

Parents can also challenge societal stereotypes by introducing their children to diverse perspectives and celebrating individuality.

Parental acceptance is reflected in everyday moments that shape a child's sense of self-worth and security. By fostering an environment where uniqueness is embraced, parents play a pivotal role in promoting the mental health and resilience of gender-expansive children.

For Further Reading

Xiao, S.X., Hoffer, A.L., Benoit, R.L., Scrofani, S., & Martin, C. L. (2023).  Parents matter: Accepting parents have less anxious gender expansive children. Sex Roles, 89, 459–474.

Xiao, S. X., Cook, R. E., Martin, C. L., & Nielson, G. M. (2019). Characteristics of preschool gender enforcers and peers who associate with them. Sex Roles, 81, 671-685.

Martin, C. L., Andrews, N. C., England, D. E., Zosuls, K., & Ruble, D. N. (2017a). A dual identity approach for conceptualizing and measuring children's gender identity. Child Development, 88, 167–182.

Aubrey Hoffer is a graduate student at Arizona State University who studies body image with the aim of understanding how to promote a positive body image for people of all genders.

Sonya Xinyue Xiao is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. Her research focuses on children's positive social development, especially as related to gender and race/ethnicity.

Stephan Scrofani has a PhD from Arizona State University in Human Development and Family Studies. His work focuses on promoting positive socio-emotional development for transgender youth. This includes identifying school climate supports in school spaces, and exploring the protective role of parent-child communication and support at home.

Carol Lynn Martin is a Cowden Distinguished Professor of Child Development in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. Her research and intervention work centers on gender development, peer relationships, and student academic success.