Gender Identity in Adolescent Development

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  • 0:52 Gender Identity
  • 3:01 Sexual Orientation
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

During adolescence, teens become more and more aware of their sexuality and what it means to be part of their gender. In this lesson, we'll explore how gender identity and sexual orientation develop in adolescence.


In many ways, Andy is a normal 16-year-old and does normal 16-year-old things, like going to school and socializing with friends. But Andy feels very different from other 16-year-olds. While most teenage boys like football and action movies, Andy doesn't. In fact, Andy doesn't even feel like a boy. Despite what Andy's body looks like, Andy feels like a girl. She's even started spelling her name with an 'i' on the end.

Andi is in adolescence, or the time between childhood and adulthood. Many changes occur during adolescence, including those around gender identity like what Andi is going through. Let's look closer at how gender and sexual orientation develop in adolescence.

Gender Identity

Andi isn't alone in what she's going through. As children turn into adolescents, they begin to question what it means to be part of their gender, and some adolescents find that their gender and their sex organs don't match up, as with Andi.

One of the first stages of gender development in adolescence involves establishing gender identity, or what it means to be part of each gender. For example, Andi developed the idea that a man is tough and likes cars and sports. In early adolescence, people tend to be very rigid about gender roles. Boys sometimes act very hyper-masculine and macho and girls sometimes act very girly and lady-like. Many adolescents conceptualize masculinity and femininity in very rigid, differentiated ways. As adolescents develop, most of them begin to understand gender roles differently. For example, Andi eventually understood that men can be gentle and like cooking instead of sports. Later in adolescence, many people conceptualize genders roles as more flexible than before. For many people, thinking about gender identity is all that they ever have to think about, but some adolescents, like Andi, discover that gender identity is more complicated than that.

To understand Andi's situation, let's first look at the difference in 'gender' and 'sex'. A person's sex is about the sexual organs. Because she has male sex organs, Andi's sex is male. But that's not the whole story. A person's gender is the psychological state of being male or female. For many people, gender and sex are the same; someone with female genitals feels like a girl. But sometimes, as in the case with Andi, a person's sex and gender are not the same. For example, Andi's sex is male, but her gender is female. As adolescents figure out gender identity, they also sometimes discover that their sex and gender are different, as Andi has.

Sexual Orientation

Andi isn't the only one who feels different. Her friend Mary is struggling too, though in a different way. Mary's sex and gender are both female, but while most girls are mooning over the boys in their class, Mary has a crush on another girl. During adolescence, sexual feelings spring up in most teens. As sexuality becomes a major part of life, so too does sexual orientation, which is based on which sex a person is attracted to.

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