How to Help Your Teen Understand Their Gender Identity

While there seems to be an increasing amount of coverage in the media about sexuality and gender identity, the truth is that these are not new topics for teens to find themselves struggling to navigate and understand.

There is more awareness today, which is a positive thing for a teen grappling with identity. It’s also a positive thing for parents who may not understand what their teens are having difficulty with, as with increasing awareness comes increasing resources for both parents and teens.

Facts to know

  • It’s considered normal and developmentally appropriate for children and teens both to explore and experiment with gender.
  • Gender identity is the sense of who you are. Whether female, male, both female and male, or neither.
  • Children and teens who are gender diverse may dress or behave in a manner that is different from what is typically expected of the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Gender dysphoria is a feeling of anxiety and stress because gender identity doesn’t match the sex assigned at birth.

Understanding your child and gender identity

Do you understand gender identity?

Your gender identity is your sense of who you are.

Are you male, female? Do you identify as both? Do you identify as neither?

Your child may not identify as male, despite being assigned the sex at birth.

Knowing some gender-related terms can help you and your child understand what they are feeling:

  • Cisgender. When someone identifies as cisgender, they identify as the same sex they were given at birth. Your child identifies as male, which was the sex assigned at birth.
  • Gender diverse. Several subcategories can be seen in gender diversity:

    • Transgender. Your child’s gender identity does not match the sex that they were given at birth. Your child may identify as female, but male was the sex given at birth.
    • Non-binary. Your child does not identify as either female or male. They may also identify as a combination of both female and male.
    • Gender fluid. Your child’s gender identity is fluid. They will move between gender identities.
    • Agender. Your child does not connect or identify with any gender type. What this looks like will depend on your child and how they choose to express themselves.

It’s important to note that your child could also use an entirely different word or phrase to identify their gender. They should spend more time learning about who they are and gain a deeper understanding of their gender identity.

An expression of gender in children and teens

How does your child or teen express their gender?

There are several ways to choose to express their gender through what is known as gender expression. They may do it through makeup, their behavior, their choice of hairstyle or hair color, their voice, or the clothing that they wear. They may also choose to change their name.

Most children start to express gender identity when they are just toddlers. They will do this through how they speak about themselves and through the clothing they pick out to wear. You may notice that your toddler, who once didn’t care what you dressed her in, is now showing a strong dislike for dresses and floral hair accessories.

Or prefers to opt for something with horses versus dinosaurs. While some of it is just your child learning to express themselves and their interests, children express gender identity in ways that make sense to them.

Children who are gender diverse will follow these same developmental milestones. Some, not all, are firmer about their gender than other two and three-year-old children may be. The child may get angry if someone calls them a boy or a girl. They may firmly tell someone that they are not a boy, but they are a girl. They outright refuse to wear clothing typically associated with the gender that they were given at birth.

Some children may never speak about their gender identity. For some, it could be in their teens or well into adulthood before they find the confidence to speak up about their gender identity.

If your child or teen is experimenting with their hair, makeup, or clothing, it does not necessarily mean that they are transgender or gender diverse. It’s considered a healthy developmental process for children and teenagers to experiment with how they dress and present themselves to the world.

The vast majority of children will feel comfortable with the gender that they were assigned at birth, even if their appearance may suggest otherwise.

Understanding gender dysphoria

It is important to note that not all children who are gender-diverse will struggle with gender dysphoria. Some are confident in who they are and who their gender identity is. Others may struggle with gender dysphoria, which is feeling a sense of distress because the sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity.

This distress can take a toll on a child and teen. They may struggle at school, they may struggle with peers, and they may also have a hard time following the rules at home. This may be more of a concern if they deal with bullying or discrimination.

Knowing what the signs of gender dysphoria are can better help you to recognize them in your teen:

  • Your teen may feel and state firmly that the sex they were assigned at birth differs from their gender identity.
  • Your teen may ask if they can be called by a different name that they better connect with.
  • You may be asked to use a different pronoun, such as she, he, they, or them.
  • Your teen may ask if they can take medication to alter their appearance to be more feminine or masculine.
  • Clothing choices may lean more towards those that disguise their body.
  • The signs of depression and anxiety may start to become very noticeable. You may also notice that your teen is showing signs of self-harm.

You may not know how to help your teen struggling with gender dysphoria. The most important thing you can do is to ensure they know your door is always open and that you’re happy to speak with them about what they are feeling and experiencing.

Demonstrate to your teen that you love and accept them for who they truly are. It can be potentially confusing for you to navigate but remember that the most important thing is that your teen feels supported. Confusion can be understandable. Feeling alone and unsupported will only serve to make your teen feel terrible as he tries to navigate what is, to him, a life that is very confusing and overwhelming.

What can you do for your teen?

In addition to telling your teen and reassuring him constantly that he is loved without condition, you may not know how else to help him work through what he’s struggling with.

The dynamics of each family are different, but there are some things that you can work on:

  • Engage and encourage your teen. All teens need to know that they are cared for, respected, and heard. Let your teen know that you are there for them, no matter what they are going through. Remind them of just how proud you are of them.
  • Do your part to learn. As parents, some of the hardest parts of being a parent relate to simply understanding what our children are experiencing. Take the time to learn as much as you can so that you can help your teen through questions they may have.
  • Find resources. You and your teen can both benefit from resources that are designed to help navigate, understand, and get support during this new phase in your lives.
  • Don’t out them before they’re ready. You must be respectful of your teen’s timeline. They may be starting to feel confident with their sexuality and gender identity, but that does not mean they are ready to share it with other members of the family or their social circle.
  • Make sure their doctor is understanding. Your teen’s physician and their office staff being understanding can go a long way towards helping your teen feel supported. In addition, if your teen and you both decide that hormonal treatments are a good direction, having that support will be invaluable.

Providing your teen with unconditional support and love is the best thing that you can do for them. Getting them the right type of resources and help will go a long way towards ensuring they understand what they are feeling about their gender identity.

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