I’m writing this post as a follow up to last week’s blog on basic LGTBQ terminology for parents. As an adolescent and family therapist in Washington DC, I often meet with teens who are exploring their gender and sexual identity and many of them are struggling with how to discuss these aspects of identity with their families. Parents can help take the pressure off of their kids by feeling confident and capable of navigating conversations about sex, sexuality, and gender identity; yet for many parents, these conversations are new territory and more than a little uncomfortable to discuss. Here are some ideas for helping parents help your teenager explore these aspects of identity in a way that encourages openness and connection.
Tips for Talking with your Teen about Gender and Sexuality:
- Facilitate open communication : Listen more than you talk and show an openness to learning what your child’s experience is as they navigate their identity. Identity formation is a key task of adolescence- your child is trying to develop a narrative of who they are and how they see themselves, and how they want the world to see them (not just in regards to gender). Let them know that you’ll talk through anything with them. Teens are highly reactive to your tone and facial expressions; keeping open communication means keeping judgments and even questions in check, and just letting them talk as much as possible with you.
- Lead with curiosity and empathy : If your child says or does something out of character or that you disapprove of, remember that this is the same child that you love, raised with values, and see lots of hope in. When you remember all of that, you can have curiosity and compassion for the confusing (and sometimes moody and aggravating) time that they are going through. If they’re mad at you for ‘not getting it’, you can respond with “I can tell you’re frustrated that you’re misunderstood right now – I want to get it right. Tell me what it’s like for you” and try to reflect back what they’re feeling. Empathy builds connection and trust; the more connection and trust you have with your child, the more confident they feel as they go through the ups and downs of adolescence and their identity journey.
- Honor your child’s feelings and use their preferred pronouns : Teens are constantly changing as they figure out identity. A lot of parents feel that their child is going through a phase or seeking attention by asking to be called by different pronouns. Here is my reply for that: call them what they ask to be called. Even if your child changes their mind in a month, you will have shown them that you trust them, you support them, and you will navigate their journey with them wherever that goes. If your child is asking to be referred to with male pronouns and you continue to use female, then you are at best dishonoring their temporary feelings, and at worst causing pain and trauma by mis-gendering your child. The best thing you can do is call them what they ask to be called, and go with the flow if that changes.
- Notice and tend to your own feelings : Just as adolescence is a roller-coaster time for our kids, it is a roller-coaster for many parents as well. As we encourage our kids to explore and manage their feelings, parents will need to do so too. Explore your own feelings about your child’s identity (gender and otherwise) and notice your hopes, dreams, fears; also notice your love and compassion for your child, and their enduring qualities that will persist regardless of other parts of identity that might change (i.e. their caring nature, curiosity, or sense of humor, etc). It is normal for parents to experience feelings of grief or fear when their child goes down a different path than the parent may have always envisioned (whether that is choosing a different gender identity, or choosing a different career) – it is important for parents to tend to these feelings and talk through them with their partner or a trusted friend or therapist, rather than processing with your child. Feeling acceptance and love for your child might require processing some of your own feelings or emotional blocks outside of your dialogues with your child.
As your child grows up and explores the many facets of their identity, it is important to be just as curious and supportive of their gender and sexual identity development as other parts of their identity. We are all complex beings that deserve self-actualization and acceptance, and my hope is that the more that parents can understand their child’s changing world, the more support and connection they can offer in their journey.