My 7-Year-Old Son Likes Dolls, Dresses, and Make-Up. Help!

I fear that my 7-year-old son might be gay. I know that it's not politically correct to fear that and that I should support whatever sexual identity he ends up living, and I'm really trying to accept things, as I will love him forever no matter what. He's a great kid. I'm not one of those people who see gay people as less than. But the reality is that where I live here in the rural deep south, he would have a VERY rough go of it both growing up and as a young adult. I want the best life has to offer for my child and I don't want him bullied or exposed to the kind of homophobic hate that is known to run rampant around these parts. Here's why I think he might be gay by the way: He plays mostly with dolls, avoids sports and the types of toys boys tend to go for, is always asking about my make-up, and he even wanted to be Princess Elsa from the movie "Frozen" for Halloween this year. I couldn't bring myself to let him and he ended up being Spider-Man. He doesn't understand what the problem is. What am I supposed to do? I feel like a bad parent if I suppress who he wants to be, but I feel like a bad parent if I let him do something that he might grow out of and he gets bullied or emotionally scarred in the meantime. —Conflicted Mama
Dear Conflicted Mama,

I hear your struggle and pain, and you are not alone. It is so hard to know just what the right thing to do for your kids may be when you see them potentially heading down a road that could make their lives more difficult and quite possibly more dangerous.

The best thing you can do for your son is offer him unconditional love and support by letting him know that you love him as he is, for who he is, and that nothing can change that. Whether he eventually realizes himself to be a member of the LGBTQIA community or is simply just drawn to more traditionally feminine toys and activities, he is likely to hear about these things from his peers. By trying to protect him from the hate and mockery of others, you may unintentionally give him the message that you don’t think his choices are OK and that he needs to hide who he is. He needs to have a safe place to be himself, and that should be with you. (It should be everywhere, really, but with you is a must.)

That said, you can also equip him for living in your community. You can give him the tools he needs to combat bullying and hate. At 7, he is probably at least somewhat aware of how others may respond to him. You can talk with him about possible reactions to him choosing an Elsa costume over a Spider-Man costume. Empower him to make choices and prepare him for the ramifications. Let him know that the problem is NOT in his choice, but in the ignorance and bigotry that exist in the world. Help him find allies in the community—friends, teachers, other parents—who support him. Bullying and hate are terrible things, but they can be managed with support. Kids who internalize feelings that who they are is not OK suffer terribly, often feeling shame, isolation, and loneliness. These are the kinds of feelings that lead to hopelessness, depression, and even suicide.

Your question resonates deeply with me. My 4-year-old son is also drawn to dresses and make-up. He loves trucks and dinosaurs, but he chose to be Elsa for Halloween this year (it’s a popular costume!). When he wanted to wear a dress to school last week, I hesitated. When he was 2 or 3 it was no big deal, but lately I’ve seen that his peers respond in less accepting ways to cross-gender preferences. He wore the dress, but we practiced what he might say to friends if they laughed, made fun of him, or called him a girl. The moment we walked into the classroom, a group of boys did exactly that. He responded with, “Nope, I’m a boy. I just wanted to wear this.” And that was the end of it. Granted, at 4 and 5, kids are generally more accepting than at 7, but I hear your fears and your concerns, and all you can do is equip him to handle what he may face—and the best way to do that is by making sure he knows there is nothing wrong with him.

If I can also offer a little clarification as well: There is a difference between gender preferences, gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Preferring toys and objects that are traditionally associated with a different gender does not necessarily have anything to do with gender identity or sexual orientation. Your son may be more sensitive and nurturing than his male peers. There are girls his age who prefer some of the more traditionally male toys. That does not necessarily mean they are gay or straight or bisexual. Nor does it mean that those girls identify more as masculine or the boys identify more as feminine. Kids like what they like. We are the ones who make meaning of it and attach labels.

If you need support for yourself or your son in figuring out how to navigate through these issues, find a therapist who works with gender fluidity. Whether or not your son is gay, a therapist trained in LGBTQ+ issues would have a lot of resources and strategies for navigating how to be different in an intolerant community.

Best of luck,

Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Jimmie

    November 7th, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    I would imagine that this would be a difficult process for any parent to go through, not because you will not ultimately accept what or who your child becomes but mainly because most of us do not want to see them get hurt and we know that when kids think too much outside of the box they can get picked on like crazy.
    Now I can say this because I am not invested in your issue, but I say let him be what he wants to be and go with it. If he is comfortable with those choices then why not let him be a happy kid with those decisions? He may grow out of it, he may not, but what he will remember more than anything was whether you were berating him and forcing him to try to be something that he isn’t or if instead you were loving and supportive and encouraged him to be all the he can be.

  • Tally

    November 7th, 2014 at 1:09 PM

    For now I think that I would just take a bit more of a wait and see attitude. He is young, things change all the time, he might be into army men next, who knows?

  • Dr. Fred Shulman

    November 8th, 2014 at 11:26 AM

    Love, support and encourage him in becoming the best man he can be, regardless of his sexual preferences…which are really HIS business and may or may not change anyway, in time. If where you live really deters happiness, then MOVE, as difficult as that may be. We only live once on this earth…but if we live right,then once is enough! I’ve been practicing psychotherapy for over 40 years and have been on this earth for 72 years. Have fun, do what feels good, go/stay where the love is…and everything will work out!

  • Maia

    November 9th, 2014 at 4:24 AM

    I am a firm believer in supporting our children in their interests, needs, leanings and preferences. When I observed my daughter’s personality strengths, learning style, approach to life, interests at school and her aptitude, I decided an all-girls’ high school would suit her more than letting her continue to the state run high school where most of her classmates were going to. It was a wise move. She thrived there.
    When I observed my son’s behaviour at school, his social preferences, personality strengths, interest in learning in a smaller environment, problems with conformity/compliance in a large school with certain behavioural approach that caused lots of conflict and a massive drop in self esteem and love of learning over the course of 8 months, I immediately changed schools for him. Namely, i had to homeschool him for a year. That was really challenging for me, but it was a wise move for him. When my daughter told me of a girls’ sleepover weekend party at age 15, and that she had some same sex sexual play happen, I supported her. When she had a girlfriend for a year, I supported her too. Non-judgmentally.
    When she came home pregnant in university (after switching to a boyfriend), I talked her through her options, but again supported her and let her make her own decision. She kept the baby.
    I am close to my son, used to be very close to my daughter, but for other reasons, she is now not close to me. Life is, what it is. It is our obligation to nurture and support our children as individuals, and not expect them to live according to our dreams for them. I have been happy being such a lucky mother!

  • jameson

    November 10th, 2014 at 8:34 AM

    Do you ever think that it would be wrong to tell him that this is something that you can do at home but not when you are around school friends? I amen, that would give him the freedom to do what he enjoys at home in a safe place but then the expectation would be that he would behave in a way that would be a little more conformist when in public.

  • Harry

    November 11th, 2014 at 4:00 PM

    I would have a hard time with this. I want to be all open minded and all, but don’t you think that there comes a time when sexual roles really still should mean something in society? maybe that is why there is all of this confusion today, because somehow we have allowed the lines to become a little too blurred in some cases.

  • alexis t.

    November 13th, 2014 at 3:40 AM

    I guess I feel pretty torn about this. There is a part of me that as a parent and even as just a decent human being I want to say to let him be who he feels like he is, and if this means acting and dressing more like what we would perceive to be more feminine then so be it. There is another part of me that would want life to be easier for him and if I wanted that then I would do more to encourage him to act more like a boy in how he dresses and who he plays with. This would be a very difficult situation because even if you were willing to go along with it as a parent you know that he is going to be made fun of etc and no one wants to see that happen.

  • LEE

    November 14th, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    have you thought about taking your child to see a counselor so that he or she could talk to him a little more about what he is feeling and kind of come to some sort of decision about the best way to handle this? I know that you don’t want to do or say something right now that would damage him.

  • togo

    November 14th, 2014 at 10:05 AM

    I don’t think Harry we need to stick to the unfair sexual biases of previous generations. How are the lines too blurred? I think we are better off with men who can be nurturing and help raise families and women who can contribute to global decision making and innovation for example. As a woman I am grateful every day that I live in America where I have the option to be more than a victim of my sex. I personally don’t want to be a mother or wife as my main identity.

  • Clint

    November 16th, 2014 at 5:43 AM

    He’s 7? I just don’t think that I would put too much credence into what he feels about his own sexuality at this point in time.
    I understand that it is important to talk to him about certain things, he may have a pretty healthy understanding already of what he feels like is expected of him.
    But at the same time, are any of us the same person that we were when we were 7? I highly doubt it.
    There are some things that I just would not choose to have a battle about and for me, especially at this age, I think that this would be one of those.

  • tolly

    November 29th, 2014 at 4:11 PM

    My son is the same way and is kind of hurtful, not what he thinks but what other people have to say about him I sometimes think that they think that I have caused him to be this way but I swear to you that this is just who he has always been and what he has enjoyed since he was very small. I don’t think that if this is who he is then it is my right to try to make him into something that he isn’t.

  • wayne

    June 17th, 2015 at 4:39 PM

    No he is not gay just leave him alone. If he wants to dress in girls stuff let him do so. I dress in them and I’m not gay

  • Llama

    March 15th, 2017 at 3:45 PM

    It doesn’t exactly mean he is gay. Society has taught us that stereo-typically girls like those things, but guys are capable to like them too. I don’t think you should stress over it. Gay only means he would like the same gender. If he is having crushes on boys, that means he’s gay. If he plays with dolls, wears dressed, and likes makeup that’s just him being him.

  • Gianna

    April 26th, 2019 at 8:51 PM

    This is a few years old now, but I just wanted to say that I also have a 7 year old son who just happens to love dolls, pink things, and anything glittery lol. It started when he was about 2, and he saw Frozen and wanted to BE Elsa. At that age, I didn’t give it a second thought and we went out and got him an Elsa doll. He loved it, but he like REALLY wanted to BE Elsa. He would take his little blanket and wrap it around his waste and twirl with glee just like it was a dress, and he would put another little blanket on his head and say “look at my beautiful hair!”
    Again, it really didn’t phase me as I was sure that it was merely a passing fancy and he would move on to the next thing. We got him an Elsa costume and he wore it around the house all day long lol. He also wanted some sparkly “high heels” so we got some cute little pink sparkly flats and he was as happy as could be. After about a year of the wanting to wear the dress and shoes, I did start to have some concerns. Not at ALL because I am scared that he will be gender confused or gay or whatever, but because the world is a mean place and it did and still does break my heart to think of ANYONE making my kid feel bad and I know (not first hand) that it’s a ROUGH experience for many people of all ages to be labeled “different”, whatever that may be. Especially when they are still young, and going through adolescence and into the dreaded and already difficult teenager years. I don’t want other kids or even adults to make fun of him.
    He did outgrow the wearing dresses phase, but for Halloween he always wants to be a typically “girly” character and that’s fine. I made him a sparkly unicorn costume last year lol. He didn’t, however, grow out of the “girly” toy phase. This kid LOVES DOLLS lol. Monster high in particular, and also my little pony. I actually collect and customize Monster High dolls, so that’s where he got it from I guess. Between the 2 of us we must have close to 200 Monster High dolls… We both have a bit of a problem😂 He does have some “boy” stuff also, all of his clothes (except for some pajamas) come from the boy section because that’s what he likes. He’s got trucks and ninja turtles and Spiderman stuff, but 75% dolls and ponies and related stuff like posters and even his bedding, which is all Frozen. So is his bike.
    Anyways I digress. My point I was trying to make before I rambled was that I do still have fears about this. That’s the reason I googled the subject, because I’m looking for the best way to explain to him that people MIGHT make fun of him, and it might really hurt his feelings. He got a new doll today and told me that he wants to bring it to show and tell next week and I am absolutely going to let him do that if he chooses to. We tell him ALL OF THE TIME that we absolutely love and adore him and that there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with a boy liking dolls, and deep down I know he understands this. The problem is that so many other kids probably DON’T understand it and he’s a very sensitive kid and I’m terrified of him being bullied. There’s a very bigoted and narrow minded narrative that permeates much of society, and sadly people tend to push their own thoughts and beliefs onto their children, regardless of what those thoughts and beliefs are. I’m NEVER going to ask him to compromise who he is to please others or to fit the “status quo”, EVER. Nor would I want to. He’s perfect. I’m just trying to find the best way to prepare him for what reactions he may get from other kids if he brings his doll. I got bullied pretty bad as a child and I never talked about it, even to my parents. I internalized all of that negativity and it STILL affects me. I don’t want that for my kids.
    I often wonder if the fact that we’ve never reacted in an adverse way to to his toy preferences and just treat it like its absolutely normal (because it IS) might end up being the thing that hurts him the most. What I mean is that here, at home, and with all of his family and extended family, we don’t give any of it a second thought, it’s perfectly normal and accepted for him to ask for dolls for Christmas and wear unicorn pajamas to bed. So when he goes out in the real world, so to speak, and people DON’T just treat him as “normal”, I’m worried that it will just crush him. On a very, very deep level….a level that may make him question himself and give him some identity crisis or something.
    I’m worried that I may be setting him up to be a target and he’s walking into the lions den completely unaware of what potential harm he may face. It’s a very scary thought and Im beginning to feel guilty for having not completely prepared him for what a terrible place the world can be.

  • Phil

    June 14th, 2019 at 4:44 AM

    I’m 68 now and can say that whatever is true about the gender of your son will continue to be true the rest of his life. Supporting him at home like that is wonderful, and will help a lot- as home is the model place for us and our knowing that we can be bullied becomes a different problem- how to deal with bullies- rather than a question about whether we are ok or not . I did not have support as a child, and I coped by hiding and pretending, and doing my best to meet society’s expectations. But I felt hollow and divorced from my own emotions, which hurt my ability to be a partner. I am growing up all over again now,and now that so much life has passed, I see that the ‘need for ‘ gender conformity is more destructive than helpful. Simply standing up for oneself allows us to have the conversations that need to be had with others.

  • Erica

    August 28th, 2019 at 1:02 PM

    My son is 7 years old and he loves every princess you can think of he loves Elsa ever since he was 2 years old he seem very interested with barbies, dresses sparkly things. My mom bought him a princess dress and an elsa wig and as soon as he gets home from school he changes and dances. He told me that this year for Halloween we wanted to dress up for school and that he wanted to be Elsa. Maybe I’m putting to much thought into this but i don’t know what to reply oh what to do I love my son and i want him to be happy i want him to be himself just how he is at home, but i have to be realistic and understand that other kids might not see it as we do. Any advice please.

  • Sharon P

    November 26th, 2021 at 4:20 AM

    The original question was 7 years ago but it still resonates. Mothers want the best for their children even though some things don’t appear to be the best on the surface. Gay is gay. Cross Dressing is Cross Dressing, and Transgender is transgender. They are all categories of LGBQT. Sometimes we help our children make choices. Sometimes we deal and accept with the choices our children have made. And sometimes there is no choice involved. My son seemed like a typical boy when he was younger. But that was on the surface. He hid it well until I caught him wearing my clothes and make-up, and smoking my cigarettes when he was 9. I freaked out. And after I finished freaking out, we talked and I listened. My son was too young to know anything about hormones, transitioning, or surgery. However, he came to believe he could become female by smoking women’s cigarettes. At the age of 7, my son started smoking my Virginia Slims. From there, he began dressing up and smoking in front of the mirror, emulating me. By the time I found out, he had a pack a day addiction. Yes, I tried to stop him. No, I couldn’t. My husband and I moved so that we could raise him as our daughter. I had to home school him because “She” was smoking too much to attend school. My son is now 24 and happily married to a wonderful man. Happily is the key word.

  • Paul

    February 23rd, 2022 at 6:39 PM

    Hi Sharon, I must admit that I almost gasped upon reading your message about your experiences of your son’s desires to present himself as a pretty “boy” smoking like a glam and alluring lady smoker. I was a child of the 70s and I began to feel a sexual allure to the sight and sensuality that I observed on the faces of pretty ladies when they lit themselves up and inhaled sucked on their smoke deeply and felt something that looked extremely pleasurable and of much comfort. I spent lots of time throughout my childhood staying/living with my aunty, who was a heavy smoked and I felt arousal and allure when she lit her fag and I loved nothing more than snuggling into her lap and feeling her smoke all around me. Strange eh! I would often have an erection and an erotic desire to feel and look like Aunty C did. Nonetheless, I did not expect that as a little boy, I would be able to smoke until I was a grown up. In fact, I don’t think I even knew that children can and do smoke.
    But, one life changing evening, Aunty C began describing to me how wonderful smoking makes her feel, how heavily she is addicted, and that she just would be able to relax or cope if she couldn’t smoke. Next thing I know she is telling my that I was also a person like her who felt uptight and anxious and that, even though I was just little, she knew smoking would help me relax and make me feel special. At first I felt frightened, but she reassured me and I went in the space of 10 days from my fist tentative little puff, then being shown how to inhale, an adoration of the sensation of smoke going deep inside of my little body, being bought my own brand of menthol cigarettes, given my own lighter and ashtray, support to make a deliberate decision to become a real smoker, being made aware of how much more relaxed I was, and that I looked adorable when I was smoking. I was encouraged by Aunty C to smoke as often as i could, in front of her two younger daughters, in the car, in public, and made aware after 4 or 5 days that I was now completely addicted. Instead of feeling any distress about my necessity to always have to be able to smoke, even when I was at school, I felt elated and proud of my new status as a smoker, with an addiction that consisted of a 25 a day habit.
    But, the thing that I want to share with you is that my smoking addiction happened simultaneously with my Aunty’s recognition that it was the girl in me that was the smoker and that she wanted to help me be pretty. If you like, I would be happy to connect with you on a more personal level to talk in more detail, but, for now, I can tell you that I was quickly introduce3d by Aunty C to the Need for my mop of blond hair to be set in hair rollers and to spend time under her dryer and enjoy the heat and smoke while my hair dryed. Often also, I and her would just leave our rollers in and head out and about wearing our tightly set rollers….I felt so gorgeous and soon I began to love dressing up, wearing lipstick and going with Aunty every couple of months to the hair salon for a perm. Oh gosh I was aroused at the sight of myself in the mirror with perm rods being set in my hair as I smoked with all of the other pretty ladiesgetting their hair styled.
    Um, a couple more points…I became sexually active early on and although my Aunty C’s part in this is referred to as “abuse”, it wa anything but this to me and her. I began masturbating (but not coming) when I was 7 or 8 as I smoked, and often Aunty C would “massage” me as we smoked together, sometimes in the bath.
    I loved be submissive to my addiction and feeling at the mercy of my constant need to smoke. I loved being looked at smoking, was fortunate to have had many allowances made so that I could feed my need, and feel so much more beautiful than I could ever have felt without the cigarette smoking which was the foundation of my transition into a life as a “boy” smoking as a “girl”
    Lets find a way to chat on a more personal level. Oh, so you know, I am a happily married man too, as it might happen to a gorgeous lady who smokes dependently and desirably as well.
    My warmest regars,
    Paul (New Zealand)

  • Same Boat Mom

    May 22nd, 2023 at 9:42 AM

    I am in the same situation, how can we connect?

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