The teen years can be challenging at the best of times. When you add in gender identity and sexual orientation, your teen may find the challenges amplified. Teens who struggle with their identity are at an increased risk of various concerns, including bullying, violence, and suicidal thoughts.
As a parent, you must understand what your teen is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. This will put you in a good position to help your teen as they struggle with figuring out who they are. In decades past, it would be the rare teen who felt comfortable being open with their parents and coming out before they are long into their adulthood.
Today, with wider acceptance and representation, more teens feel comfortable enough to come out to their parents.
Understanding gender identity and your teen
How do you define gender identity?
To your teen, it is the sense of who they feel they are. To break it down at the highest levels, this could include the following four gender identities:
- Male and female
It can get a little complicated from here on out, but the more time you take to understand gender identity, the more you’ll relate to and connect with your teen.
Cisgender is the term used to describe it when your gender identity is male or female, and it’s the sex assigned to you at birth. As an example, you were given the sex female when you were born. You identify as female. You can consider yourself to be a cisgender person.
Gender diverse is the term that is used to describe a few variations of gender identity. Some of these include the following:
- Agender. This is the term used to describe an individual who does not identify with any gender.
- Transgender. This is the term used to describe an individual whose gender identity does not match the sex assigned at birth. As an example, you were given the sex female when you were born. You identify as male.
- Non-binary. This is the term used to describe an individual whose gender identity is not male or female. Instead, it’s a combination of both male and female traits.
- Gender fluid. This term is used to describe an individual who does not identify as one gender but rather moves between gender identities.
Your teen may identify their gender in another way entirely or may identify in a combination of ways. It’s up to you as their parent to understand how they identify and to respect their gender identity.
Sexual orientation and gender identity
It can be confusing to work out what the difference is between sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s important that you take the time to understand it.
Sexual orientation and sexuality refer to an individual’s choice of romantic or sexual attraction. Whether that means you’re attracted to someone of the same sex, opposite sex, both, or neither.
Gender identity refers to an individual’s personal sense of gender.
The way that your teen displays their gender is referred to as gender expression. This can take place in a few different ways:
- Name change. Your teen may ask to be referred to by a new name that, to them, feels like a better fit for who they are.
- A hairstyle, makeup, and more. Your teen may start to alter how they wear makeup, hair and present themselves to the world. Your teen who identifies as a male could cut his hair short, wear eyeliner, and go heavy on the jewelry. Your teen who identifies as female may also cut her hair short, wear eyeliner, and focus on heavy jewelry that expresses who she is. There is no one way for your teen to present themselves.
- Clothing options. The way we dress has long been a way for us to define who we are and how we feel. You may not necessarily agree with your teen’s clothing choices, but the odds are good you would feel that way about each of your teens as they start to express themselves.
- Behaviors and voice. Your teen could start to alter their behavior and voice as a way of expressing who they are. What this looks like will be unique to your teen. It’s important not to ridicule your teen as they start to find out who they are through behavioral expression.
Remember that most children start to express gender identity when they are around two years old. They demonstrate this in how they refer to themselves and the clothing and toys that they pick out. Some children can be quite firm about their gender from a very early age.
Whether gender diverse or not, your child may have expressed their gender identity from an early age. For example, your daughter may have refused to wear clothing typically associated with a girl, and she may have proclaimed that she was a boy when people referred to her as a girl.
Your teen boy may start to wear clothing typically associated with girls. Your teen girl may refuse to wear skirts, dresses, and heels. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are transgender or gender diverse. Experimentation with clothing is quite common in children and teens of all ages.
For some, gender identity may not be something they focus on until they are well into their adult years. Every person is different, which is why it’s so important to have an open and understanding approach.
Understanding gender dysphoria
Somewhat distressing for your teen, gender dysphoria can be a challenge to navigate. This is the term used to describe an individual who feels distressed or confused between the sex that they were assigned at birth does not match their gender identity.
It’s important to note that not all gender-diverse teens will struggle with gender dysphoria. Some are perfectly comfortable with the knowledge that they identify with a gender that differs from the one that they were assigned at birth. It shouldn’t become a concern until it appears that your teen is struggling with their gender identity.
Knowing the signs of gender dysphoria can put you in a better position to help your teen navigate this confusing part of their life.
- Your teen may express anger or frustration if they are referred to in a gender-specific manner.
- They may express to you that they don’t feel certain about their assigned gender.
- Ask that you use a different name when speaking to them. Selecting a new name can be a large part of identity, and it’s important to your teen that their new name becomes a part of who they are.
- Your teen may ask that you use different pronouns when referring to them. This could include he, she, them, they.
- Signs of anxiety, particularly in social situations, may become a concern.
- Depression may become a problem for many teens struggling with their gender identity.
- Your teen may start to display signs of self-harm, which could include cutting themselves. Self-harm is not always a precursor to suicide attempts, but it should still be taken very seriously.
As your teen struggles with gender dysphoria, you may feel helpless and confused about how to best support them. Show them that they are loved without condition. Encourage them to open up about how they are thinking, feeling, and about what they are experiencing.
What can you do?
As parents, we are inclined to want to fix everything for our struggling children. However, when it comes to your teen’s sexuality and gender identity, the best approach is not to try and take over and make decisions for them.
- Engage, support, and love. All teens need to know that they are loved and supported without condition. Your teen struggling with sexuality and gender identity needs it even more than you may be aware of. Speak opening, honestly, and without judgment to your teen. Let them know that they are loved without condition and that you support them as they attempt to navigate this very confusing path.
- Do your part to educate yourself. The more that you learn about the proper terminology and the process of gender identity, the better you’ll be able to help your teen when they are struggling. It will also help your teen feel supported when their parents use the correct terminology, pronouns, and more.
- Look for resources. Several online resources can help parents and teens both.
- Remind your teen about just how proud of them you are. Coming out is scary for many adults and downright terrifying for many teens. It takes a lot of courage to speak your truth to the people in your life.
- Ask for permission before outing them. As proud as you might be about your teen knowing and recognizing his sexuality and gender identity, it’s not your story to share. Hold off on telling other members of your family and community until your teen is ready to do so.
- Be proactive when it comes to getting your teen mental health help. Therapy can offer many benefits, even when you’re not trying to figure out your gender identity. When your teen feels supported and heard and has a safe space to be himself, he will be in a better state of mind. All too many LGTBQ teens take their own lives because they don’t feel supported and heard.
If your teen has been struggling in school and at home, even though you are offering all of the support in the world, it can help to spend some time away from the familiar.
A residential treatment center can help your teen to better focus on their mental wellness. If they are struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, time spent in the supportive and structured environment of a residential treatment center can only offer great benefits.