What is your gender?
The answer to this question is no longer limited to the binary response of “male or female”. Our culture is shifting to be more inclusive of many gender variations, and this has been liberating for so many people of all ages who have felt misrepresented by the labels assigned to them.
Teens and adolescents are embracing gender fluidity more than any other demographic. In a 2019 study of 8th, 9th and 11th grade students in Minnesota, 1.3% responded that they identify as transgender, genderqueer or genderfluid. While this number may seem relatively small, it becomes larger when you consider this as an average for this age group across the nation and the world. Gender fluidity is actively being discussed among teens and adolescents. It is part of a growing cultural awareness that will continue to be carried forward by their generation. So, how can parents help support and validate their kids who identify as transgender or gender fluid?
Recognizing the Validity
Parents may wonder if their teen or adolescent is just “going through a phase.” Some kids who are exploring their gender identity may find that they do, in fact, identify with the gender in which they were born. Some may find that they do not. It is important to remember that gender fluidity is not a new concept. Native American cultures, for example, have acknowledged two-spirit people long before it became part of the mainstream conversation.
In many ways, we are catching up to the reality that binary gender identities, much like any other two-choice situation, simply does not work. Humans are far more complex and interesting than that. Your teen may be exploring gender identity and may determine that they identify as male, female, transgender, gender fluid, or non-binary. There are many gender types; it is not a matter of “choosing” one, as much as figuring out what resonates as truth. It’s also necessary to remember that gender and sexual preference are two separate factors. A person can identify with any gender and have a sexual preference for any gender as well; one does not automatically imply the other.
Asking the Questions
No one is born knowing all the terms relating to gender identity. For many parents who have only known about the male or female gender construct, this is new territory. It is understandable that you may not know the varying terminology or how to talk about gender fluidity. As you begin to talk with your teen about gender identity, be transparent about your limited knowledge of the topic and let them know that you want to learn.
Many kids want to talk about their gender identity, or some of the thoughts and feelings they have about it but need to know that they are in a safe space where they will not be judged, mocked, or mistreated. By creating a safe space to talk about their gender and offering opportunities to teach you more about them, you are establishing yourself as a loving, non-judgmental parent who loves them unconditionally. This environment is optimal for any child and is particularly ideal for an adolescent or teen who identifies in a non-binary way. The American Psychological Association has published findings related to best practices in treating gender-questioning youth. Those findings indicate that transgender and non-binary youth who receive family acceptance suffer less depression and have lower rates of suicide and HIV risk behaviors. The stakes are high for kids who are gender non-conforming. More than anything, they need the unconditional love and support of their parents. It could save their life.
Embracing the Pronouns
A good starting point for supporting an adolescent’s gender identity is to learn more about the use of varying gender-affirming pronouns. Do you identify with your gender assigned at birth? If so, your pronouns would be he/him/his or she/her/hers. People who identify as both male and female may use the pronouns they/them/theirs. The pronouns he/they or she/they can show that someone primarily identifies as a male or female but also resonates with the identification of the opposite sex.
At first glance, it may seem like a simple pronoun would not matter much. But when you consider how many times in a single day someone uses a pronoun in reference to who you are, it is a very big deal, especially if you are being referred to by the wrong gender. Imagine if every time someone referred to you, they used the incorrect pronoun. Males who identify as male, would probably not want to be referred to as “she,” any more than a cis-gender female would want to be referred to as “he.” While it may be commonplace to use the gender assigned at birth as their pronoun, it may be uncomfortable or inaccurate based on their internal identification of gender. By asking people what their pronouns are, we are embracing their truth rather than an assumption.
Enjoying the Names
When transgender or non-binary adolescents begin to embrace their true pronouns and be more open about their gender identity, it is common for them to choose a name that suits them. Choosing your own name that resonates with your view of self is a powerful step. Regardless of whether a person makes the decision to legally change their name or simply uses it as a nickname, it is a statement of ownership and identity and should be supported as such.
Some may fear that by supporting their teen in using a different name, that they are encouraging them to be genderfluid or transgender. Parents need to keep in mind that by supporting and embracing your child’s name choices and gender identification, you are validating them as a person who has autonomy and sending the message that you love them regardless of how they identify and what their name is. Part of successfully supporting a gender questioning teen is to be open to the journey with them and release your fears about needing control or maintaining status quo.
Regardless of whether you support your adolescent in their gender exploration journey, or deny their experience, they will continue to internally navigate this question of gender. Many parents would rather have their teen be open and honest with them rather than dealing with it on their own without support. Try to be patient with your teen and with yourself as you learn more about gender identity. Ask questions, even if you are nervous or apprehensive. And if you are a supportive, loving parent of a transgender or questioning teen, give yourself a pat on the back for a parenting job well done. Part of raising a child successfully is to teach them self-acceptance and compassion for themselves and others. When we demonstrate that toward ourselves and our kids, we model that value system and make it easier for them to go out into this big world and thrive.
Talley Webb, MA, CRMC