With conversations about gender identity, gender dysphoria and gender expression seemingly happening now more than ever, here’s how to support your teenager navigate gender identity – whether they’re questioning their own gender identity or looking to understand the topic better to support their friends and peers.
For many young people, the teenage years are for figuring out your identity – what makes you fit in with your peers, what makes you stand out, and what generally just makes you “you.” From friendships and dating to personal style and hobbies, it’s healthy for teenagers to explore their identity and try new things. One area teenagers are increasingly exploring is gender identity.
As a parent, it can be helpful to gather your own information about gender identity, so that you are more prepared to support your teen when questions or conversations arise.
What kind of conversations can you expect? Your teen may have questions about a friend or peer who identifies as gender nonbinary or gender fluid and they’re looking to you to help understand. Your child may be privately questioning their own identity but aren’t sure how you will react. Even if your teen has not talked with you about this topic yet, odds are that they have seen or heard about gender identity from watching TV, reading the news or talking with friends.
By being proactive and ready to have conversations around gender identity, you can:
Here are ways to support your teen on the topic of gender identity:
One of the best ways to be in tune with your child is to develop an open, trusting relationship where your child feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.
This takes time, but by asking open-ended questions and validating your teen’s feelings, you’re showing them that – whatever the topic – it’s safe to bring it up with you. Thank them for being open and vulnerable with you and let them know you are here to support them.
Before engaging with your teen on the topic of gender identity, take some time for self-reflection on the topic. You may find you have your own biases and stereotypes about gender identity and the LGBTQ+ community – even unconsciously. Biases build up after a lifetime of experiences and societal and cultural cues that shape our perception of others.
In order to support your teen in having a dialogue about gender identity, it’s likely that you’ll need to do some of your own work in unlearning biases and stereotypes, as well as building your knowledge around LGBTQ+ experiences.
Here are some ways to support foundational learning on this topic:
By continually educating yourself, building empathy and acknowledging biases, you’ll be better equipped to have a productive and positive conversation with your teen.
On the subject of education, it’s helpful to brush up on gender identity terminology. That way, you’ll understand specific terms your teen asks about, while also showing that it’s important to you to be informed on this topic.
Generally, a good takeaway is: gender identity is personal to you, how you feel and how you present yourself as it relates to your gender (man/boy, girl/woman or nonbinary and other gender-expansive identities). Note: Sexuality and sexual orientation (gay, straight, bisexual, etc.) describe who you are attracted to and are separate from gender identity and gender expression.
Gender identity: refers to a person’s internal felt sense or understanding of their gender. Western society tends to assume that if a person is born male, their gender identity is a boy or man. Though this is often true, someone’s gender identity may differ from their biological sex.
Biological sex/sex assigned at birth: refers to the sex category that was assigned at birth by a physician, often thought of as a binary of either male or female based on physical characteristics such as genitals and chromosomes. People who, biologically, are not typically male or female are referred to as intersex.
Gender expression: refers to how a person expresses their gender through outward presentation and behavior. This includes a person’s name, clothing, hair style, body language and mannerisms. All people express their gender, even when they are not conscious of it, not just transgender or gender-expansive people.
Cisgender: is a term for people whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Transgender (trans): is a gender description or identity for someone whose gender identity does not match their biological sex. A transgender, or trans, person may seek medical treatment such as hormone therapy or surgical procedures to affirm their gender identity, but it is not necessary to seek medical intervention for a person to be trans.
Nonbinary: describes a person whose behaviors or gender expression fall outside of what is generally considered typical for their sex assigned at birth and/or who do not identify as either boy (man) or girl (woman).
Gender-fluid: refers to someone whose gender identity and/or expression moves between and in-between the binaries of boy/man and girl/woman.
If this terminology is new to you, it’s always OK to share with your teen that you’re learning. And check in with your child on the labels and terms they’re using or hearing, to ensure you’re on the same page.
Often, kids and teens are worried they won’t be accepted, loved or supported when sharing about their gender identity with parents or caregivers. If your young person isn’t comfortable talking with you about their gender identity yet, they may end up sharing this information with a trusted mentor, teacher or mental health professional.
Let that adult know you’re open to the conversation when your teen is ready, keep the lines of communication open and always lead with your love and acceptance.
This is especially important as research shows LGBTQ+ youth who have family support have greater self-esteem and resilience and a lower risk of negative outcomes like depression, hopelessness and substance abuse.
Learn more about BGCA’s commitment to inclusion for LGBTQ youth. Boys & Girls Clubs of America provides safe places, caring mentors and life-enhancing programs that boost youth self-esteem, build confidence and contribute to overall positive and healthy wellbeing. Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest resources and stories.